Rift Valley Fever Virus Infects the Posterior Segment of the Eye and Induces Inflammation in a Rat Model of Ocular Disease.

26 Oct 2022
Schwarz MM, Connors KA, Davoli KA, McMillen CM, Albe JR, Hoehl RM, Demers MJ, Ganaie SS, Price DA, Leung DW, Amarasinghe GK, McElroy AK, Reed DS, Hartman AL

People infected with the mosquito-borne Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV) can suffer from eye-related problems resulting in ongoing vision issues or even permanent blindness. Despite ocular disease being the most frequently reported severe outcome, it is vastly understudied compared to other disease outcomes caused by RVFV. Ocular manifestations of RVFV include blurred vision, uveitis, and retinitis. When an infected individual develops macular or paramacular lesions, there is a 50% chance of permanent vision loss in one or both eyes. The cause of blinding ocular pathology remains unknown in part due to the lack of a tractable animal model. Using 3 relevant exposure routes, both subcutaneous (SC) and aerosol inoculation of Sprague Dawley rats led to RVFV infection of the eye. Surprisingly, direct inoculation of the conjunctiva did not result in successful ocular infection. The posterior segment of the eye, including the optic nerve, choroid, ciliary body, and retina, were all positive for RVFV antigen in SC-infected rats, and live virus was isolated from the eyes. Proinflammatory cytokines and increased leukocyte counts were also found in the eyes of infected rats. Additionally, human ocular cell lines were permissive for Lrp1-dependent RVFV infection. This study experimentally defines viral tropism of RVFV in the posterior segment of the rat eye and characterizes virally-mediated ocular inflammation, providing a foundation for evaluation of vaccines and therapeutics to protect against adverse ocular outcomes. Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV) infection leads to eye damage in humans in up to 10% of reported cases. Permanent blindness occurs in 50% of individuals with significant retinal scarring. Despite the prevalence and severity of this outcome, very little is known about the mechanisms of pathogenesis. We addressed this gap by developing a rodent model of ocular disease. Subcutaneous infection of Sprague Dawley rats resulted in infection of the uvea, retina, and optic nerve along with the induction of inflammation within the posterior eye. Infection of human ocular cells induced inflammatory responses and required host entry factors for RVFV infection similar to rodents. This work provides evidence of how RVFV infects the eye, and this information can be applied to help mitigate the devastating outcomes of RVF ocular disease through vaccines or treatments.