Vascular endothelial growth factor A (VEGF) induces angiogenesis and vascular hyperpermeability in ocular tissues and is therefore a key therapeutic target for eye conditions in which these processes are dysregulated. In contrast, the therapeutic potential of VEGF’s neurotrophic roles in the eye has remained unexploited. In particular, it is not known whether modulating levels of any of the 3 major alternatively spliced VEGF isoforms might provide a therapeutic approach to promote neural health in the eye without inducing vascular pathology. Here, we have used a variety of mouse models to demonstrate differences in overall VEGF levels and VEGF isoform ratios across tissues in the healthy eye. We further show that VEGF isoform expression was differentially regulated in retinal versus corneal disease models. Among the 3 major isoforms — termed VEGF120, VEGF164, and VEGF188 — VEGF188 was upregulated to the greatest extent in injured cornea, where it was both necessary and sufficient for corneal nerve regeneration. Moreover, topical VEGF188 application further promoted corneal nerve regeneration without inducing pathological neovascularization. VEGF isoform modulation should therefore be explored further for its potential in promoting neural health in the eye.
James T. Brash, Laura Denti, Christiana Ruhrberg, Franziska Bucher