Neovascularizing retinopathy is a significant complication of sickle cell disease (SCD), occurring more frequently in HbSC than HbSS disease. This risk difference is concordant with a divergence of angiogenesis risk, as identified by levels of pro- vs anti-angiogenic factors in the sickle patient’s blood. Because our prior studies documented that morphine promotes angiogenesis in both malignancy and wound healing, we tested whether chronic opioid treatment would promote retinopathy in NY1DD sickle transgenic mice. After 10 to 15 months of treatment, sickle mice treated with morphine developed neovascularizing retinopathy to a far greater extent than either of the controls (sickle mice treated with saline and wild-type mice treated identically with morphine). Our dissection of the mechanistic linkage between morphine and retinopathy revealed a complex interplay among morphine engagement with its m opioid receptor (MOR) on retinal endothelial cells (RECs); morphine-induced production of tumor necrosis factor a and interleukin-6 (IL-6), causing increased expression of both MOR and vascular endothelial growth factor receptor 2 (VEGFR2) on RECs; morphine/MOR engagement transactivating VEGFR2; and convergence of MOR, VEGFR2, and IL-6 activation on JAK/STAT3-dependent REC proliferation and angiogenesis. In the NY1DD mice, the result was increased angiogenesis, seen as neovascularizing retinopathy, similar to the retinal pathology occurring in humans with SCD. Therefore, we conclude that chronic opioid exposure, superimposed on the already angiogenic sickle milieu, might enhance risk for retinopathy. These results provide an additional reason for development and application of opioid alternatives for pain control in SCD.
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