New Genetic Eye Disease Discovered

Summary: Researchers have identified a new genetic eye disease that affects the macula.

Source: NIH

Researchers from the National Eye Institute (NEI) have identified a new disease that affects the macula, a small part of the light-sensing retina needed for sharp, central vision. Scientists report their findings on the novel macular dystrophy, which is yet to be named, in JAMA Ophthalmology. NEI is part of the National Institutes of Health. 

Macular dystrophies are disorders that usually cause central visual loss because of mutations in several genes, including ABCA4, BEST1, PRPH2, and TIMP3. 

For example, patients with Sorsby Fundus Dystrophy, a genetic eye disease specifically linked to TIMP3 variants, usually develop symptoms in adulthood. They often have sudden changes in visual acuity due to choroidal neovascularization– new, abnormal blood vessels that grow under the retina, leaking fluid and affecting vision. 

TIMP3 is a protein that helps regulate retinal blood flow and is secreted from the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a layer of tissue that nourishes and supports the retina’s light-sensing photoreceptors. All TIMP3 gene mutations reported are in the mature protein after it has been “cut” from RPE cells in a process called cleavage. 

“We found it surprising that two patients had TIMP3 variants not in the mature protein, but in the short signal sequence the gene uses to ‘cut’ the protein from the cells. We showed these variants prevent cleavage, causing the protein to be stuck in the cell, likely leading to retinal pigment epithelium toxicity,” said Bin Guan, Ph.D., lead author.

This shows a woman's eye
Macular dystrophies are disorders that usually cause central visual loss because of mutations in several genes, including ABCA4, BEST1, PRPH2, and TIMP3. Image is in the public domain

The research team followed these findings with clinical evaluations and genetic testing of family members to verify that the two new TIMP3 variants are connected to this atypical maculopathy. 

“Affected individuals had scotomas, or blind spots, and changes in their maculas indicative of disease, but, for now, they have preserved central vision and no choroidal neovascularization, unlike typical Sorsby Fundus Dystrophy”, said Cathy Cukras, M.D., Ph.D., a Lasker tenure-track investigator and medical retina specialist who clinically evaluated the patients.

NEI’s Ophthalmic Genomics Laboratory gathers and manages specimens and diagnostic data from patients who have been recruited into multiple studies within the NEI clinical program to facilitate research of rare eye diseases, including Sorsby Fundus Dystrophy. 

“Discovering novel disease mechanisms, even in known genes like TIMP3, may help patients that have been looking for the correct diagnosis, and will hopefully lead to new therapies for them,” said Rob Hufnagel, M.D., Ph.D., senior author and director of the Ophthalmic Genomics Laboratory at NEI. 

Funding: The study was funded by the NEI Intramural Research Program.

About this genetics and vision research news

Author: Claudia Costabile
Source: NIH
Contact: Claudia Costabile – NIH
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Early-Onset TIMP3-Related Retinopathy Associated With Impaired Signal Peptide” by Bin Guan et al. JAMA Ophthalmology


Early-Onset TIMP3-Related Retinopathy Associated With Impaired Signal Peptide


Sorsby fundus dystrophy is a typically adult-onset maculopathy with high risk for choroidal neovascularization. Sorsby fundus dystrophy, inherited as an autosomal dominant fully penetrant trait, is associated with TIMP3 variants that cause protein aggregation in the extracellular matrix.


To evaluate the phenotype and underlying biochemical mechanism of disease-causing TIMP3 variants altering the N-terminal signal peptide in 2 families who have early-onset diffuse maculopathy without choroidal neovascularization with cosegregation of TIMP3 variants in the signal peptide sequence.

Design, Setting, and Participants  

This case series of 2 families with early-onset diffuse maculopathy was conducted at the National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Data were collected and analyzed from October 2009 to December 2021.

Main Outcomes and Measures  

Clinical imaging and molecular genetic testing were performed in 2 families with macular dystrophy. Cosegregation analysis of TIMP3 variants was performed in affected and unaffected family members. Candidate TIMP3 signal peptide variants were assessed for cleavage defects after transfection.


Eleven individuals from 2 families with early-onset diffuse maculopathy without choroidal neovascularization harbor TIMP3 variants (L10H or G12R) in the N-terminal signaling peptide were analyzed. Cosegregation with phenotype was confirmed in additional family members. Biochemical analysis confirmed defects in both protein maturation and extracellular deposition.

Conclusions and Relevance  

This study found that TIMP3 variants altering signal peptide function deviated from classic Sorsby fundus dystrophy both in phenotypic features and underlying mechanism. These results suggest atypical patient presentations are caused by TIMP3 signal peptide defects, associated with impaired cleavage and deposition into the extracellular matrix, implicating a novel macular dystrophy disease.

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