Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a leading cause of vision impairment and blindness worldwide in the working-age population, and the incidence is rising. Until now it has been difficult to define initiating events and disease progression at the molecular level, as available diabetic rodent models do not present the full spectrum of neural and vascular pathologies. Zebrafish harboring a homozygous mutation in the pancreatic transcription factor pdx1 were previously shown to display a diabetic phenotype from larval stages through adulthood. In this study, pdx1 mutants were examined for retinal vascular and neuronal pathology to demonstrate suitability of these fish for modeling DR.
Vessel morphology was examined in pdx1 mutant and control fish expressing the fli1a:EGFP transgene. We further characterized vascular and retinal phenotypes in mutants and controls using immunohistochemistry, histology, and electron microscopy. Retinal function was assessed using electroretinography.
Pdx1 mutants exhibit clear vascular phenotypes at 2 months of age, and disease progression, including arterial vasculopenia, capillary tortuosity, and hypersprouting, could be detected at stages extending over more than 1 year. Neural-retinal pathologies are consistent with photoreceptor dysfunction and loss, but do not progress to blindness.
This study highlights pdx1 mutant zebrafish as a valuable complement to rodent and other mammalian models of DR, in particular for research into the mechanistic interplay of diabetes with vascular and neuroretinal disease. They are furthermore suited for molecular studies to identify new targets for treatment of early as well as late DR.