Blood-retinal barrier (BRB) breakdown is a hallmark of diabetic retinopathy, but the molecular changes that cause this pathology are unclear. Occludin is a transmembrane component of interendothelial tight junctions that may regulate permeability at the BRB. In this study, we examined the effects of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and diabetes on vascular occludin content and barrier function. Sprague-Dawley rats were made diabetic by intravenous streptozotocin injection, and age-matched animals served as controls. After 3 months, BRB permeability was quantified by intravenous injection of fluorescein isothiocyanate-bovine serum albumin (FITC-BSA), Mr 66 kDa, and 10-kDa rhodamine-dextran (R-D), followed by digital image analysis of retinal sections. Retinal fluorescence intensity for FITC-BSA increased 62% (P < or = 0.05), but R-D fluorescence did not change significantly. Occludin localization at interendothelial junctions was confirmed by immunofluorescence, and relative protein content was determined by immunoblotting of retinal homogenates. Retinal occludin content decreased approximately 35% (P < or = 0.03) in the diabetic versus the control animals, whereas the glucose transporter GLUT1 content was unchanged in rat retinas. Additionally, treatment of bovine retinal endothelial cells in culture with 0.12 nmol/l or 12 nmol/l VEGF for 6 h reduced occludin content 46 and 54%, respectively. These data show that diabetes selectively reduces retinal occludin protein expression and increases BRB permeability. Our findings suggest that the elevated VEGF in the vitreous of patients with diabetic retinopathy increases vascular permeability by downregulating occludin content. Decreased tight junction protein expression may be an important means by which diabetes causes increased vascular permeability and contributes to macular edema.

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