The goal of this study was to examine changes in the expression of transcripts and proteins associated with drusen in Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) after exposing human retinal pigment epithelium (hRPE) cells to chronic oxidative stress.


Primary adult human RPE cells were isolated from cadaveric donor eyes. The subpopulation of RPE stem cells (RPESCs) was activated, expanded, and then differentiated into RPE progeny. Confluent cultures of RPESC-derived hRPE and ARPE-19 cells were exposed to a regimen of tert-butylhydroperoxide (TBHP) for 1-5 days. After treatment, gene expression was measured by quantitative PCR (qPCR), protein expression was assessed by immunocytochemistry and transepithelial resistance and cell toxicity were measured.


hRPE cells exposed to a regimen of TBHP for 5 days upregulate expression of several molecules identified in drusen, including molecular chaperones and pro-angiogenic factors. 5-day TBHP treatment was significantly more effective than 1-day treatment at eliciting these effects. The extent of hRPE response to 5-day treatment varied significantly between individual donors, nevertheless, 6 transcripts were reliably significantly upregulated. ARPE-19 cells treated with the same 5-day stress regime did not show the same pattern of response and did not upregulate this group of transcripts.


RPESC-derived hRPE cells change significantly when exposed to repeated oxidative stress conditions, upregulating expression of several drusen-related proteins and transcripts. This is consistent with the hypothesis that hRPE cells are competent to be a source of proteins found in drusen deposits. Our results suggest that donor-specific genetic and environmental factors influence the RPE stress response. ARPE-19 cells appear to be less representative of AMD-like changes than RPESC-derived hRPE. This adult stem cell-based system using chronic TBHP treatment of hRPE represents a novel in vitro model useful for the study of drusen formation and dry AMD pathophysiology.