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Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 1998 Mar;236(3):230-3.

Photosensitization of retinal pigment epithelium by protoporphyrin IX.

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Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA.



Clinical evidence of injury to the retinal pigment epithelium is an important feature of age-related macular degeneration, but the mechanism of this injury is unknown. Blue-light-dependent activation of the blood-borne photosensitizer protoporphyrin IX is known to produce free radicals which may damage cells and tissues. This study was undertaken to determine the effect of blue light and protoporphyrin IX on retinal pigment epithelial cells in vitro.


Third-passage porcine retinal pigment epithelial cells were plated in six-well culture plates at 100,000 cells/well and grown to confluence. Retinal pigment epithelial cells were then incubated in culture media with and without 35 micrograms/dl protoporphyrin IX and exposed to low intensity (118 microW/cm2) blue, blue-free, or full-spectrum white light in an irradiating incubator for 16 h on/8 h off cycles for 7 days. Some of the wells were shielded from light (dark controls). Retinal pigment epithelial cells were examined by light microscopy and were trypsinized and counted after 7 days.


White light with and without protoporphyrin IX and protoporphyrin IX in dark conditions did not decrease the retinal pigment epithelial cell count significantly. Blue light alone and blue light with protoporphyrin IX decreased the cell count by 22 +/- 4% and 35 +/- 3% compared to the controls, respectively.


Blue wavelength light without exogenous protoporphyrin IX has a cytotoxic effect on confluent cultures of retinal pigment epithelium, suggesting that endogenous photosensitizers may be present in retinal pigment epithelial cells. Protoporphyrin IX has an additive cytotoxic effect in the presence of blue light, suggesting that this photosensitizer is capable of mediating blue-light-induced retinal pigment epithelial damage. Since protoporphyrin IX is present in blood and tissue fluids, and the retina is chronically exposed to light, protoporphyrin IX-mediated free radical formation may occur in vivo and may play a role in retinal pigment epithelial changes that occur early in the pathogenesis of age-related macular degeneration.

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