The present study investigated retinal glia and choroidal vessels in flatmounts and sections from individuals with clinically diagnosed Stargardt disease (STGD).
Eyes from three donors clinically diagnosed with STGD were obtained through the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB). Genetic testing was performed to determine the disease-causing mutations. Eyes were enucleated and fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde and 0.5% glutaraldehyde. After imaging, retinas were dissected and immunostained for glial fibrillary acidic protein, vimentin, and peanut agglutin. Following RPE removal, the choroid was immunostained with Ulex europaeus agglutinin lectin. For each choroid, the area of affected vasculature, percent vascular area, and choriocapillaris luminal diameters were measured. The retina from one donor was hemisected and cryopreserved or embedded in JB-4 for cross-section analysis.
Genetic testing confirmed the STGD diagnosis in donor 1, whereas a mutation in peripherin 2 was identified in donor 3. Genetic testing was not successful on donor 2. Therefore, only donor 1 can definitively be classified as having STGD. All donors had areas of RPE atrophy within the macular region, which correlated with underlying choriocapillaris loss. In addition, Müller cells formed pre- and subretinal membranes. Subretinal gliotic membranes correlated almost identically with RPE and choriocapillaris loss.
Despite bearing different genetic mutations, all donors demonstrated choriocapillaris loss and Müller cell membranes correlating with RPE loss. Müller cell remodeling was most extensive in the donor with the peripherin mutation, whereas choriocapillaris loss was greatest in the confirmed STGD donor. This study emphasizes the importance of genetic testing when diagnosing macular disease.