Retinal degeneration is characterized by the irreversible loss of photoreceptors. A key research question is the identification and characterization of photoreceptor protective factors that prevent or delay vision loss. The Wnt pathway is a critical cellular communication pathway involved in development and diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). Recently, we discovered that multiple components of the Wnt pathway were differentially expressed in the rd1 mouse model of retinal degeneration. One of the most highly upregulated genes was Dickkopf3 (Dkk3), a secreted Wnt pathway protein of unknown function. Additionally, we demonstrated that Wnt signaling is neuroprotective in primary retinal culture (Yi et al., 2007). These data led to the hypothesis that Dkk3 is a regulator of Wnt-mediated neuroprotection during retinal degeneration.
The role of Dkk3 in the retina and its activity in the Wnt pathway was identified in this dissertation project using a series of biochemical, molecular and cell biology methodologies. First, Dkk3 was shown to be expressed and secreted from Muller glia in mouse retinal tissue and primary Muller glia culture. I then demonstrated that Muller glia are a Wnt-responsive cell type and that Dkk3 potentiates Wnt3a-mediated signaling. Interestingly, the latter effect was not observed in other cell types in the retina such as retinal ganglion cells and retinal pigmented epithelial cells. Thus, Dkk3 may act on Muller glia to positively modulate Wnt signaling during retinal degeneration, which could potentially amplify the neuroprotective activity of the Wnt pathway.
Next, the role of Dkk3 in cellular viability was explored. HEK293 cells stably expressing Dkk3 were shown to be significantly protected from staurosporine-induced apoptosis compared with vector control. This result suggests that Dkk3 may mediate a direct pro-survival effect onto photoreceptors during retinal degeneration.
Protein interaction experiments demonstrated that Dkk3 formed a complex with the single pass transmembrane proteins Krm1 and Krm2 in the membrane, potentially in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Furthermore, Wnt signaling luciferase reporter assays demonstrated that Krm2, but not Krm1, abolished Dkk3-mediated Wnt3a potentiation. These data suggest that Dkk3 modulates Wnt signaling by antagonizing Dkk1-Krm dependent Wnt inhibition. Further studies will determine whether this activity is sufficient for the potentiation of Wnt signaling by Dkk3.
Lastly, co-immunoprecipitation followed by mass spectrometry analysis was used to identify a novel interacting protein of Dkk3. Dkk3 was shown to interact with glucose response protein 78 (GRP78), an ER-resident chaperone. This suggested that Dkk3 protein is part of the unfolded protein response through GRP78 in the ER.
In conclusion, these studies identified two novel functions of Dkk3 in regulating Wnt signaling pathway and cellular viability and suggest a physiological role for Dkk3 and Wnt signaling during retinal degeneration. Future studies will explore the significance of the interaction among Dkk3, Krm and GRP78 in the retina. Further, elucidation of the regulation of Dkk3 and other Wnt ligands in the ER and the consequence of ER stress on the biological activity of Wnt signaling will provide a better understanding of the role of the Wnt pathway during retinal degeneration.