Regulated efflux of photoreceptor outer segment-derived cholesterol by human RPE cells

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Genetic studies have linked age-related macular degeneration (AMD) to genes involved in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) metabolism, including ATP-binding cassette transporter A1 (ABCA1). The retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) handles large amounts of lipids, among others cholesterol, partially derived from internalized photoreceptor outer segments (OS) and lipids physiologically accumulate in the aging eye. To analyze the potential function of ABCA1 in the eye, we measured cholesterol efflux, the first step of HDL generation, in RPE cells. We show the expression of selected genes related to HDL metabolism in mouse and human eyecups as well as in ARPE-19 and human primary RPE cells. Immunofluorescence staining revealed localization of ABCA1 on both sides of polarized RPE cells. This was functionally confirmed by directional efflux to apolipoprotein AI (ApoA-I) of 3H-labeled cholesterol given to the cells via serum or via OS. ABCA1 expression and activity was modulated using a liver-X-receptor (LXR) agonist and an ABCA1 neutralizing antibody, demonstrating that the efflux was ABCA1-dependent. We concluded that the ABCA1-mediated lipid efflux pathway, and hence HDL biosynthesis, is functional in RPE cells towards both the basal (choroidal) and apical (subretinal) space. Impaired activity of the pathway might cause age-related perturbations of lipid homeostasis in the outer retina and thus may contribute to disease development and/or progression.

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