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PURPOSE: To characterize the molecular mechanism underpinning early-onset macular drusen (EOMD), a phenotypically severe subtype of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), in a subgroup of patients. DESIGN: Multicenter case series, in vitro experimentation, and retrospective analysis of previously reported variants. PARTICIPANTS: Seven families with apparently autosomal dominant EOMD. METHODS: Patients underwent a comprehensive ophthalmic assessment. Affected individuals from families A, B, and E underwent whole exome sequencing. The probands from families C, D, F, and G underwent Sanger sequencing analysis of the complement factor H (CFH) gene. Mutant recombinant factor H like-1 (FHL-1) proteins were expressed in HEK293 cells to assess the impact on FHL-1 expression and function. Previously reported EOMD-causing variants in CFH were reviewed. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Detailed clinical phenotypes, genomic findings, in vitro characterization of mutation effect on protein function, and postulation of the pathomechanism underpinning EOMD. RESULTS: All affected participants demonstrated bilateral drusen. The earliest reported age of onset was 16 years (median, 46 years). Ultra-rare (minor allele frequency [MAF], ≤0.0001) CFH variants were identified as the cause of disease in each family: CFH c.1243del, p.(Ala415ProfsTer39) het; c.350+1G→T het; c.619+1G→A het, c.380G→A, p.(Arg127His) het; c.694C→T p.(Arg232Ter) het (identified in 2 unrelated families in this cohort); and c.1291T→A, p.(Cys431Ser). All mutations affect complement control protein domains 2 through 7, and thus are predicted to impact both FHL-1, the predominant isoform in Bruch's membrane (BrM) of the macula, and factor H (FH). In vitro analysis of recombinant proteins FHL-1R127H, FHL-1A415f/s, and FHL-1C431S demonstrated that they are not secreted, and thus are loss-of-function proteins. Review of 29 previously reported EOMD-causing mutations found that 75.8% (22/29) impact FHL-1 and FH. In total, 86.2% (25/29) of EOMD-associated variants cause haploinsufficiency of FH or FHL-1. CONCLUSIONS: Early-onset macular drusen is an underrecognized, phenotypically severe subtype of AMD. We propose that haploinsufficiency of FHL-1, the main regulator of the complement pathway in BrM, where drusen develop, is an important mechanism underpinning the development of EOMD in a number of cases. Understanding the molecular basis of EOMD will shed light on AMD pathogenesis given their pathologic similarities.

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