Diabetic macular edema is a major cause of visual impairment. It is caused by blood-retinal barrier breakdown that leads to vascular hyperpermeability. Current therapeutic approaches consist of retinal photocoagulation or targeting VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) to limit vascular leakage. However, long-term intravitreal use of anti-VEGFs is associated with potential safety issues, and the identification of alternative regulators of vascular permeability may provide safer therapeutic options. The vascular specific BMP (bone morphogenetic protein) receptor ALK1 (activin-like kinase receptor type I) and its circulating ligand BMP9 have been shown to be potent vascular quiescence factors, but their role in the context of microvascular permeability associated with hyperglycemia has not been evaluated.Approach and Results—
We investigated Alk1 signaling in hyperglycemic endothelial cells and assessed whether BMP9/Alk1 signaling could modulate vascular permeability. We show that high glucose concentrations impair Alk1 signaling, both in cultured endothelial cells and in a streptozotocin model of mouse diabetes mellitus. We observed that Alk1 signaling participates in the maintenance of vascular barrier function, as Alk1 haploinsufficiency worsens the vascular leakage observed in diabetic mice. Conversely, sustained delivery of BMP9 by adenoviral vectors significantly decreased the loss of retinal barrier function in diabetic mice. Mechanistically, we demonstrate that Alk1 signaling prevents VEGF-induced phosphorylation of VE-cadherin and induces the expression of occludin, thus strengthening vascular barrier functions.Conclusions—
From these data, we suggest that by preventing retinal vascular permeability, BMP9 could serve as a novel therapeutic agent for diabetic macular edema.