We have previously shown that postnatal expression of the viral oncoprotein SV40 T antigen in rod photoreceptors (transgene MOT1), at a time when retinal cells have withdrawn from the mitotic cycle, leads to photoreceptor cell death (Al-Ubaidi et al., 1992. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 89:1194-1198). To study the effect of the specificity of the promoter, we replaced the mouse opsin promoter in MOT1 by a 1.3-kb promoter fragment of the human IRBP gene which is expressed in both rod and cone photoreceptors during embryonic development. The resulting construct, termed HIT1, was injected into mouse embryos and five transgenic mice lines were established. Mice heterozygous for HIT1 exhibited early bilateral retinal and brain tumors with varying degrees of incidence. Histopathological examination of the brain and eyes of three of the families showed typical primitive neuroectodermal tumors. In some of the bilateral retinal tumors, peculiar rosettes were observed, which were different from the Flexner-Wintersteiner rosettes typically associated with human retinoblastomas. The ocular and cerebral tumors, however, contained Homer-Wright rosettes, and showed varying degrees of immunoreactivity to antibodies against the neuronal specific antigens, synaptophysin and Leu7, but not to antibodies against photoreceptor specific proteins. Taken together, the results indicate that the specificity of the promoter used for T antigen and/or the time of onset of transgene expression determines the fate of photoreceptor cells expressing T antigen.

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