Heat shock proteins in the retina: Focus on HSP70 and alpha crystallins in ganglion cell survival

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Heat shock proteins (HSPs) belong to a superfamily of stress proteins that are critical constituents of a complex defense mechanism that enhances cell survival under adverse environmental conditions. Cell protective roles of HSPs are related to their chaperone functions, antiapoptotic and antinecrotic effects. HSPs' anti-apoptotic and cytoprotective characteristics, their ability to protect cells from a variety of stressful stimuli, and the possibility of their pharmacological induction in cells under pathological stress make these proteins an attractive therapeutic target for various neurodegenerative diseases; these include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, prion disease, and others. This review discusses the possible roles of HSPs, particularly HSP70 and small HSPs (alpha A and alpha B crystallins) in enhancing the survival of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in optic neuropathies such as glaucoma, which is characterized by progressive loss of vision caused by degeneration of RGCs and their axons in the optic nerve. Studies in animal models of RGC degeneration induced by ocular hypertension, optic nerve crush and axotomy show that upregulation of HSP70 expression by hyperthermia, zinc, geranyl–geranyl acetone, 17-AAG (a HSP90 inhibitor), or through transfection of retinal cells with AAV2-HSP70 effectively supports the survival of injured RGCs. RGCs survival was also stimulated by overexpression of alpha A and alpha B crystallins. These findings provide support for translating the HSP70- and alpha crystallin-based cell survival strategy into therapy to protect and rescue injured RGCs from degeneration associated with glaucomatous and other optic neuropathies.

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