Retinal neurodegeneration is an early pathological change in diabetic retinopathy (DR). Early-stage retinal neurodegeneration is usually asymptomatic. This study aims to identify circulating microRNAs (miRNAs) as sensitive biomarkers for early retinal neurodegeneration.
We profiled the plasma miRNA expression in three mild nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy (NPDR) cases and three matched non-DR patients using RNA sequencing. The differential miRNAs were validated with qRT-PCR. The retinal nerve fibre layer (RNFL) thickness of the eyes was measured using spectral-domain Optical coherence tomography (SD-OCT). The association between differential miRNAs and RNFL thickness was analysed using the Pearson correlation analysis. Bioinformatics tools were used to predict potential targets of miRNA associated with RNFL thickness and investigate the functions of the potential target genes.
RNA sequencing identified 69 differential miRNAs and eight of them were reported to be associated with DR. The qRT-PCR for these eight miRNAs validated the down-regulation of circulating miR-26a-5p and miR-126-5p in a larger validating cohort. A positive correlation between plasma miR-26a-5p level and the RNFL thickness of the superior quadrant of both eyes was identified in another cohort, including 33 mild NPDR cases, 33 matched non-DR patients and 20 healthy controls. Furthermore, 367 candidate targets of miR-26a-5p were predicted. The functional studies revealed that these target genes are profoundly involved in various cellular functions and signalling pathways.
Circulating miR-26a-5p is a potential biomarker for early-stage retinal neurodegeneration and it may be involved in the development of DR via profoundly influencing the functions of retinal cells.