Risk in AMD: Insight from Studies on Environmental Risk Factors, Genotype, and VEGF
Studies have shown that both environmental risk factors, such as smoking and body mass index1,2, and genotype3-8 are important in determining individuals at risk for vision loss due to AMD9. However, how to interpret these data is difficult, particularly when advising an individual patient. This short review is meant to provide background and guidance to the clinician and not to be exhaustive in discussing either environmental risk factors or genetics in AMD. Although absolute answers to determining risk of AMD are not yet available, this information may provide greater insight.
It has been determined recently that a common mutation in complement factor H (CFH), a protein that dampens the alternative pathway of complement activation, is highly associated with increased risk of AMD, both exudative and atrophic.3,6,7 Further evidence supports that defects in the alternative pathway of complement activation are associated with AMD. Factor B mutations confer protection10, whereas Factor C3 mutations also impart risk.11 CFH is one of the complement regulatory proteins that reduce activation of complement pathways, which result in the common end-product, the membrane attack complex (MAC). Traditionally, MAC is known to cause necrosis of cells, but it is now known that there are sublytic effects of MAC that can alter cell function. How would we interpret these findings in AMD? It appears that mutations would prevent the natural dampening of the alternative pathway by regulatory proteins and may tip the balance between expected aging to pathology in certain genetically susceptible patients or those exposed to environmental factors over time. However, for development of MAC to occur, complement must be present and activated. Drusen are composed of complement factors.12 Research supports that photo-oxidative damage13 and certain infectious agents14,15 are ways that complement can be activated to affect the eye or ocular cells. So this line of thinking helps resolve how a disease that has a strong association with genotype could occur late in life.
Environmental factors play a role too. Besides increased age, the most important risk factors reported are smoking and body mass index.1,2 Some other risk factors
include low levels of carotenoids in the serum, blue light exposure, oxidative stress and inflammation.16-22 Both smoking and body mass index can increase the risk of AMD over that present from genotype.23
Although we know that inhibiting the bioactivity of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) can help neovascular AMD patients with varying risk factor profiles,24 we do not know if the efficacy of anti-VEGF treatments is associated with genotype. How is it possible that patients with multiple different risk factor profiles could receive benefit from anti-VEGF treatment? Many of the environmental risk factors for AMD have been shown in the laboratory to cause an increase in VEGF production in cells or animal models,15,25,26 so inhibiting VEGF may have broad benefit. Yet only approximately 40% of patients with neovascular AMD receive significant visual acuity benefit from anti-VEGF agents.24 Bioavailability and different mechanisms of action of drugs may differ as can the stage in disease pathogenesis when patients are treated. But recent evidence helps to provide additional clues. Studies have found associations of AMD with the untranslated regions of the VEGF gene.27 These regions were not considered important in the past, but we now recognize that these are where factors may bind to initiate, interrupt or inhibit gene transcription and may help explain why some patients with multiple risk factors do not develop severe disease, whereas others with few risk factors do. In addition, evidence from animal models suggests that the outcome of VEGF inhibition may depend on the composition of the extracellular membrane/ Bruch’s.membrane.28
The roles of both environmental risk factors and genotype are important in assessing risk of AMD. Environmental risk factors, particularly smoking and body mass index, increase the risk of AMD over that of genotype alone. Therefore, it is important to recommend that patients - regardless of genotype - reduce these risk factors. VEGF is important in the pathology of AMD regardless of risk profile but new findings of genetic mutations in the untranslated portion of the gene provide insight as to why some individuals with an apparently low risk profile develop disease whereas others with an apparently higher risk profile do not.
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About our author(s):
Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD
Associate Professor of Ophthalmology, University of North Carolina School of Medicine