Molecular basis of the retinal pigment epithelial changes that characterize the ocular lesion in toxoplasmosis

Shervi Lie, Bárbara R. Vieira, Sigrid Arruda, Milena Simões, Liam M. Ashander, João M. Furtado, Justine R. Smith

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7 Citations (Scopus)
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When a person becomes infected with Toxoplasma gondii, ocular toxoplasmosis is the most common clinical presentation. The medical literature describes retinitis with surrounding hyperpigmentation secondary to proliferative changes in the retinal pigment epithelium, which is sufficiently characteristic that investigation often is not needed to make the diagnosis. We aimed to establish the frequency of “typical” ocular toxoplasmosis and delineate its molecular basis. Among 263 patients presenting consecutively with ocular toxoplasmosis to Ribeirão Preto General Hospital in Brazil, where T. gondii infection is endemic, 94.2% of 345 eyes had retinal hyperpigmentation. In ARPE-19 and primary human retinal pigment epithelial cell monolayers exposed to minimal numbers of T. gondii tachyzoites, the proliferation marker–KI-67–was increased in uninfected cells, which also were rendered more susceptible to infection. RT-qPCR and ELISA detected increased expression of vascular endothelial growth factor A (VEGF) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF)1, and decreased expression of thrombospondin (TSP)1 by infected cells. Blockade of VEGF and IGF1—or supplementation of TSP1—reversed the proliferation phenotype in uninfected cells. Our findings confirm that hyperpigmentation is a characteristic feature of retinitis in ocular toxoplasmosis, and demonstrate that T. gondii-infected human retinal pigment epithelial cells secrete VEGF and IGF1, and reduce production of TSP1, to promote proliferation of adjacent uninfected cells and create this disease-specific appearance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number405
Number of pages17
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sept 2019

Bibliographical note

© 2019 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (


  • Ocular toxoplasmosis
  • Retinal pigment epithelium
  • Retinochoroiditis
  • Toxoplasma gondii


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