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Improved Lipofuscin Models and Quantification of Outer Segment Phagocytosis Capacity in Highly Polarized Human Retinal Pigment Epithelial Cultures

Published: April 14th, 2023



1Kellogg Eye Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2Cellular and Molecular Biology Program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

This protocol describes a lipofuscin accumulation model in highly differentiated and polarized human retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cultures and an improved outer segment (OS) phagocytosis assay to detect the total OS consumption/degradation capacity of the RPE. These methods overcome the limitations of previous lipofuscin models and classical pulse-chase outer segment phagocytosis assays.

The daily phagocytosis of photoreceptor outer segments by the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) contributes to the accumulation of an intracellular aging pigment termed lipofuscin. The toxicity of lipofuscin is well established in Stargardt's disease, the most common inherited retinal degeneration, but is more controversial in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the developed world. Determining lipofuscin toxicity in humans has been difficult, and animal models of Stargardt's have limited toxicity. Thus, in vitro models that mimic human RPE in vivo are needed to better understand lipofuscin generation, clearance, and toxicity. The majority of cell culture lipofuscin models to date have been in cell lines or have involved feeding RPE a single component of the complex lipofuscin mixture rather than fragments/tips of the entire photoreceptor outer segment, which generates a more complete and physiologic lipofuscin model. Described here is a method to induce the accumulation of lipofuscin-like material (termed undigestible autofluorescence material, or UAM) in highly differentiated primary human pre-natal RPE (hfRPE) and induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) derived RPE. UAM accumulated in cultures by repeated feedings of ultraviolet light-treated OS fragments taken up by the RPE via phagocytosis. The key ways that UAM approximates and differs from lipofuscin in vivo are also discussed. Accompanying this model of lipofuscin-like accumulation, imaging methods to distinguish the broad autofluorescence spectrum of UAM granules from concurrent antibody staining are introduced. Finally, to assess the impact of UAM on RPE phagocytosis capacity, a new method for quantifying outer segment fragment/tips uptake and breakdown has been introduced. Termed "Total Consumptive Capacity", this method overcomes potential misinterpretations of RPE phagocytosis capacity inherent in classic outer segment "pulse-chase" assays. The models and techniques introduced here can be used to study lipofuscin generation and clearance pathways and putative toxicity.

The retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) provides critical support for overlying photoreceptors, including the daily uptake and degradation of photoreceptor outer segment tips or fragments (throughout this protocol, the abbreviation OS stands for OS tips or fragments rather than whole outer segments). This daily uptake in the post-mitotic RPE eventually overloads phagolysosomal capacity and leads to the buildup of undigestible, autofluorescent intracellular material, termed lipofuscin. Interestingly, several studies have also demonstrated that RPE lipofuscin can accumulate without OS phagocytosis1,2. Lipofuscin ha....

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The present protocol involving the acquisition and use of human tissue was reviewed and approved by the University of Michigan Institutional Review Board (HUM00105486).

1. Preparation of photo-oxidized outer segment tips and fragments

NOTE: Dark-adapted bovine retinas were purchased and shipped on ice (see Table of Materials). From these retinas, OS were purified following a previously published protocol23.

  1. Outer .......

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The set-up for photo-oxidation of OS is demonstrated in Figure 1Ai. The polytetrafluoroethylene-coated slides allow for a large volume of OS in solution to be loaded per open rectangle without spreading across the rest of the slide. The slide with OS is contained within a sterile Petri dish with the lid off, and a UV lamp is placed over the slide as shown in Figure 1Aii. Alternatively, the slide can be placed in a UV Crosslinker device, as shown in

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While RPE lipofuscin has been studied for decades, its toxicity is debated2,9,16,42. Given ambiguity about the toxicity of lipofuscin from animal models11, in vitro models using human RPE are valuable. A range of in vitro lipofuscin accumulation models have been described, but none have utilized both OS feeding and highly mature and differentiated human.......

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This work is supported, in part, by grants from the Vitreo-Retinal Surgery Foundation (VRSF), Fight for Sight (FFS), and the International Retinal Research Foundation (IRRF). J.M.L.M. is currently supported by a K08 grant from the National Eye Institute (EY033420). No federal funds were used for HFT research. Further support comes from the James Grosfeld Initiative for Dry AMD and the following private donors: Barbara Dunn and Dee & Dickson Brown.


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NameCompanyCatalog NumberComments
100 mm cell culture dishCorning#353003Others also work
24-well TranswellsCorning#3470
Anti-LC3 antibodyCell Signaling Technology#4801S1:1000 dilution
Anti-rhodopsin antibody 1D4Abcam#54171:1000 dilution. Epitope is C-terminal.
Anti-rhodopsin antibody 4D2EnCor BiotechMCA-B6301:5000 dilution for western blot, 1:1000 dilution for immunostaining. Epitope is N-terminal.
Autofluorescence quencherBiotium#23007TrueBlack Lipofuscin Autofluorescence Quencher
Autofluorescence quencherVector LaboratoriesSP-8400Vector TrueVIEW Autofluorescence Quenching Kit
Bodipy 493/503Life TechnologiesD3922
Cholesterol esterase Life TechnologiesFrom A12216 kit
Confocal microscopeLeicaLeica Stellaris SP8 with FALCON module
Dark-adapted bovine retinasW. L. Lawson CompanyDark-adapted bovine retinas (pre-dissected)Contact information:
(402) 499-3161
Flow cytometerThermo FisherAttune NxT
Flow cytometer analysis software BDFlowJo
Handheld UV light Analytik Jena USUVGL-55
Human MFG-E8Sino Biological10853-H08B
Human purified Protein SEnzyme Research LaboratoriesHPS
Laemmli sample bufferThermo FisherJ60015-AD
LDH assayPromegaJ2380LDH-Glo Cytotoxicity Assay
Mounting mediaInvitrogenP36930Prolong Gold antifade reagent
Nile redSigma-Aldrich#72485
Polytetrafluoroethylene-coated slidesTekdonCustomizedCustomized specifications: PTFE mask with the following "cut-outs" -  3 glass rectangles, each measuring 17 mm x 9 mm, oriented so that the 17 mm side is 4 mm from the top of the slide and 4 mm from the bottom of the slide, assuming a standard microscope slide of 25 mm x 75 mm. Each rectangle is spaced at least 6 mm away from other rectangles and the edges of the slide. Print PTFE mask on a slide with frosted glass on one side to allow for labeling of the slide.
Protease inhibitors Cell Signaling Technology#5872
Protein assayBio-Rad#5000122 RC DC protein assay
TEER electrodeWorld Precision InstrumentsSTX3
Trans-epithelial electrical resistance (TEER) meterWorld Precision InstrumentsEVOM3
Ultraviolet crosslinker deviceAnalytik Jena USUVP CL-1000

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