Background: Oxidative stress (OS) plays a central role in diabetic retinopathy (DR), triggering expression and release of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), the increase of which leads to deleterious vascular changes. We tested the hypothesis that OS-stimulated VEGF induces its own expression with an autocrine mechanism. Methods: MIO-M1 cells and ex vivo mouse retinal explants were treated with OS, with exogenous VEGF or with conditioned media (CM) from OS-stressed cultures. Results: Both in MIO-M1 cells and in retinal explants, OS or exogenous VEGF induced a significant increase of VEGF
mRNA, which was abolished by VEGF receptor 2 (VEGFR-2) inhibition. OS also caused VEGF release. In MIO-M1 cells, CM induced VEGF
expression, which was abolished by a VEGFR-2 inhibitor. Moreover, the OS-induced increase of VEGF
mRNA was abolished by a nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2) blocker, while the effect of exo-VEGF resulted Nrf2-independent. Finally, both the exo-VEGF- and the OS-induced increase of VEGF
expression were blocked by a hypoxia-inducible factor-1 inhibitor. Conclusions: These results are consistent with the existence of a retinal VEGF autocrine loop triggered by OS. This mechanism may significantly contribute to the maintenance of elevated VEGF levels and therefore it may be of central importance for the onset and development of DR.
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