Fuchs endothelial corneal dystrophy (FECD) is a leading indication for corneal transplantation. FECD is characterized by progressive alterations in endothelial cell morphology, excrescences (guttae) and thickening of the endothelial basement membrane and cell death. Ultimately, these changes lead to corneal edema and vision loss. Due to the lack of vision loss in early disease stages and the decades long disease course, early pathophysiology in FECD is virtually unknown as studies of pathologic tissues have been limited to end-stage tissues obtained at transplant. The first genetic defect shown to cause FECD was a point mutation causing a glutamine to lysine substitution at amino acid position 455 (Q455K) in the alpha 2 collagen 8 gene (COL8A2) which results in an early onset form of the disease. Homozygous mutant knock-in mice with this mutation (Col8a2(Q455K/Q455K)) show features strikingly similar to human disease, including progressive alterations in endothelial cell morphology, cell loss and basement membrane guttae. Ultrastructural analysis shows the predominant defect as dilated endoplasmic reticulum (ER), suggesting ER stress and unfolded protein response (UPR) activation. Immunohistochemistry, western blotting, quantitative reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction and terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase 2-deoxyuridine, 5-triphosphate nick end-labeling analyses support UPR activation and UPR-associated apoptosis in the Col8a2(Q455K/Q455K) mutant corneal endothelium. This study confirms the Q455K substitution in the COL8A2 gene as being sufficient to cause FECD in the first mouse model of this disease and supports the role of the UPR and UPR-associated apoptosis in the pathogenesis of FECD caused by COL8A2 mutations.
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