Autosomal recessive childhood-onset severe retinal dystrophy (arCSRD) designates a heterogeneous group of disorders affecting rod and cone photoreceptors simultaneously1. The most severe cases are termed Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), while the less aggressive forms are usually considered juvenile retinitis pigmentosa. Recently, mutations in the retinal-specific guanylate cyclase gene were found in patients with LCA2. Disease genes implicated in other forms of arCSRD are expected to encode proteins present in the neuroretina or in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). The RPE, a monolayer of cells separating the vascular-rich choroid and the neuroretina. is in intimate contact with the outer segments of rods and cones via the microvilli surrounding the photoreceptors. The RPE expresses a tissue-specific and evolutionarily highly conserved 61 kD protein (RPE65) present at high levels in vivo3-6. Although the function of RPE65 is not yet known, an important role in the RPE/photoreceptor vitamin-A cycle is suggested by the fact that RPE65 associates both with serum retinol-binding protein7’8 and with the RPE-specific 11-c/s retinol dehydrogenase, an enzyme active in the synthesis of the visual pigment chromophore 11-c/s retinal9. Here we report that the analysis of RPE65 in a collection of about 100 unselected retinal-dystrophy patients of different ethnic origin revealed five that are likely to be pathogenic mutations, including a missense mutation (Pro363Thr), two point mutations affecting splicing (912+1G→T and 65+5G→A) and two small re-arrangements (ins144T and 831del8) on a total of nine alleles of five patients with arCSRD. In contrast to other genes whose defects have been implicated in degenerative retinopathies, RPE65 is the first disease gene in this group of inherited disorders that is expressed exclusively in the RPE, and may play a role in vitamin-A metabolism of the retina.
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