Asymmetrical secretion of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) by retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells in situ is critical for maintaining the homeostasis of the retina and choroid. VEGF is also involved in the development and progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). We studied the effect of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) on the secretion of VEGF in polarized and non-polarized RPE cells (P-RPE cells and N-RPE cells, respectively) in culture and in situ in rats. A subretinal injection of TNF-α caused a decrease in VEGF expression and choroidal atrophy. Porcine RPE cells were seeded on Transwell™ filters, and their maturation and polarization were confirmed by the asymmetrical VEGF secretion and trans electrical resistance. Exposure to TNF-α decreased the VEGF secretion in P-RPE cells but increased it in N-RPE cells in culture. TNF-α inactivated JNK in P-RPE cells but activated it in N-RPE cells, and TNF-α activated NF-κB in P-RPE cells but not in N-RPE cells. Inhibition of NF-κB activated JNK in both types of RPE cells indicating crosstalk between JNK and NF-κB. TNF-α induced the inhibitory effects of NF-κB on JNK in P-RPE cells because NF-κB is continuously inactivated. In N-RPE cells, however, it was not evident because NF-κB was already activated. The basic activation pattern of JNK and NF-κB and their crosstalk led to opposing responses of RPE cells to TNF-α. These results suggest that VEGF secretion under inflammatory conditions depends on cellular polarization, and the TNF-α-induced VEGF down-regulation may result in choroidal atrophy in polarized physiological RPE cells. TNF-α-induced VEGF up-regulation may cause neovascularization by non-polarized or non-physiological RPE cells.
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