Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a group of genetic eye conditions. In the progression of symptoms for RP, night blindness generally precedes tunnel vision by years or even decades. Many people with RP do not become legally blind until their 40s or 50s and retain some sight all their life. Others go completely blind from RP, in some cases as early as childhood. Progression of RP is different in each case.
RP is a type of hereditary retinal dystrophy, a group of inherited disorders in which abnormalities of the photoreceptors (rods and cones) or the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) of the retina lead to progressive visual loss. Affected individuals first experience defective dark adaptation or nyctalopia (night blindness), followed by reduction of the peripheral visual field (known as tunnel vision) and, sometimes, loss of central vision late in the course of the disease.
DNA testing is available on a clinical basis for:
For all other genes, molecular genetic testing is available on a research basis only.
RP can be inherited in an autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, or X-linked manner. X-linked RP can be either recessive, affecting primarily only males, or dominant, affecting both males and females, although females are usually more mildly affected. Some digenic (controlled by two genes) and mitochondrial forms have also been described.
Genetic counseling depends on an accurate diagnosis, determination of the mode of inheritance in each family, and results of molecular genetic testing.
RP combined with progressive deafness is called Usher syndrome.
There are multiple genes that, when mutated, can cause the Retinitis pigmentosa phenotype. In 1989, a mutation of the gene for rhodopsin, a pigment that plays an essential part in the visual transduction cascade enabling vision in low-light conditions, was identified. Since then, more than 100 mutations have been found in this gene, accounting for 15% of all types of retinal degeneration. Most of those mutations are missense mutations and inherited mostly in a dominant manner.
Up to 150 mutations have been reported to date in the opsin gene associated with the RP since the Pro23His mutation in the intradiscal domain of the protein was first reported in 1990. These mutations are found throughout the opsin gene and are distributed along the three domains of the protein (the intradiscal, transmembrane, and cytoplasmic domains). One of the main biochemical causes of RP in the case of rhodopsin mutations is protein misfolding, and molecular chaperones have also been involved in RP. It was found that the mutation of codon 23 in the rhodopsin gene, in which proline is changed to histidine, accounts for the largest fraction of rhodopsin mutations in the United States. Several other studies have reported other mutations which also correlate with the disease. These mutations include Thr58Arg, Pro347Leu, Pro347Ser, as well as deletion of Ile-255. In 2000, a rare mutation in codon 23 was reported causing autosomal dominant retinitis pigmentosa, in which proline changed to alanine. However, this study showed that the retinal dystrophy associated with this mutation was characteristically mild in presentation and course. Furthermore, there was greater preservation in electroretinography amplitudes than the more prevalent Pro23His mutation.
In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers working with mice at the University College London Institutes of Ophthalmology and Child Health and Moorfields Eye Hospital, transplanted mouse stem cells which were at an advanced stage of development, and already programmed to develop into photoreceptors, into mice that had been genetically induced to mimic the human conditions of retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration. These photoreceptors developed and made the necessary neural connections to the animal's retinal nerve cells, a key step in the restoration of sight. Previously it was believed that the mature retina has no regenerative ability. This research may in the future lead to using transplants in humans to relieve blindness.