Glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness worldwide, is instigated by various factors, including axonal injury, which eventually leads to a progressive loss of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs). To study various pathways reportedly involved in the pathogenesis of RGC death caused by axonal injury, seven pathways were investigated. Pathway-specific fluorescent protein-coded reporters were each packaged into an adeno-associated virus (AAV). After producing axonal injury in the eye, injected with AAV to induce RGC death, the temporal activity of each stress-related pathway was monitored in vivo through the detection of fluorescent RGCs using confocal ophthalmoscopy. We identified the activation of ATF6 and MCP-1 pathways involved in endoplasmic reticulum stress and macrophage recruitment, respectively, as early markers of RGC stress that precede neuronal death. Conversely, inflammatory responses probed by NF-κB and cell-death-related pathway p53 were most prominent in the later phases, when RGC death was already ongoing. AAV-mediated delivery of stress/response reporters followed by in vivo cellular imaging is a powerful strategy to characterize the temporal aspects of complex molecular pathways involved in retinal diseases. The identification of promoter elements that are activated before the death of RGCs enables the development of pre-emptive gene therapy, exclusively targeting the early phases of diseased cells.
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