Recent studies have demonstrated that inhibition of mevalonate synthesis in cultured cells leads to altered cell morphology due to inhibition of protein prenylation. To investigate the effects in vivo of mevalonate deprivation in nondividing, terminally differentiated neural cells, we have analyzed the effects on retinal tissue of intravitreal injection of lovastatin, a potent inhibitor of the mevalonate-producing enzyme, HMG-CoA reductase. A single injection of lovastatin (0.25 mumol) produced profound dysplastic-like changes in adult rat retinas primarily involving the photoreceptor layer. Within 2 d after injection, photoreceptor nuclei migrated in a circular pattern resulting in the formation of rosette-like structures by 4 d. Also during this period, photoreceptor inner and outer segment degeneration was evident. By 21 d, intact photoreceptor nuclei with remnants of inner and outer segments were dispersed throughout all retinal layers. To investigate the biochemical specificity of the lovastatin-induced alterations, and to distinguish the relative importance of the various branches of the mevalonate pathway, the incorporation of [3H]acetate into retinal lipids was examined in the presence and absence of metabolic inhibitors. HPLC analysis of lovastatin-treated retinas revealed a dramatic reduction in the incorporation of intravitreally injected [3H]acetate into nonsaponifiable lipids, compared with controls. In contrast, intravitreal injection of NB-598, a specific inhibitor of squalene epoxidase, eliminated the conversion of newly synthesized squalene to sterols without obvious pathology. Hence, involvement to the sterol branch of isoprenoid metabolism in the lovastatin-induced morphologic disruption was obviated. Intravitreal injection of 0.27 mumol of N-acetyl-S-trans,trans-farnesyl-L-cysteine (AFC), an inhibitor of carboxyl methyltransferase activity and prenylated protein function, produced morphologic changes that were virtually indistinguishable from those induced with lovastatin. These results implicate a defect in protein prenylation in the lovastatin-induced retinal degeneration, and suggest the presence of a dynamic pathway in the retina that requires isoprenylated proteins to maintain retinal cytoarchitecture.

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