The early pathogenetic mechanism of diabetic retinopathy (DR) and its treatment remain unclear. Therefore, we investigated the early pathogenic alterations in DR using streptozotocin-induced diabetic mice and the protective effect of sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors against these alterations. Retinal vascular leakage was assessed by dextran fluorescence angiography. Retinal thickness and vascular leakage were increased 2 and 4 weeks after onset of diabetes, respectively. Immunostaining showed that morphological change of microglia (amoeboid form) was observed at 2 weeks. Subsequently, increased angiopoietin-2 expression, simultaneous loss of pericytes and endothelial cells, decreased vessel density, retinal hypoxia, and increased vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF)-A/VEGF receptor system occurred at 4 weeks. SGLT2 inhibitors (luseogliflozin and ipragliflozin) had a significant protective effect on retinal vascular leakage and retinal thickness at a low dose that did not show glucose-lowering effects. Furthermore, both inhibitors at this dose attenuated microglia morphological changes and these early pathogenic alterations in DR. In vitro study, both inhibitors attenuated the lipopolysaccharide-induced activation of primary microglia, along with morphological changes toward an inactive form, suggesting the direct inhibitory effect of SGLT2 inhibitors on microglia. In summary, SGLT2i may directly prevent early pathogenic mechanisms, thereby potentially playing a role in preventing DR.

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