Glaucoma is an umbrella term that refers to several eye-conditions caused by the death of retinal ganglion cells which live at the back of the eye, at the place where the retinal nerve connects the eyeball to the brain. Nerve damage, resulting in the death of these retinal cells, often leads to loss of vision. The condition affects some 60 million people around the globe and causes irreversible blindness in one out of every ten cases.
Recently, researchers discovered that curcumin—which is derived from the spice turmeric—might be useful in the treatment of glaucoma. It has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and it was capable of stopping retinal cell death in the laboratory. However, there’s one little property of this awesome substance that prevents it from working the miracles it should be able to.
That property? Its solubility (or lack thereof). Curcumin has been delivered orally in a variety of studies and been found to aid somewhat in slowing the progress of glaucoma, but it’s not easy to get enough of it into the bloodstream, because it doesn’t dissolve and absorb well. Patients may have to take up to 24 tablets of curcumin a day to make a dent in their eye disease, and that many pills can seriously irritate the gut on its way to its real destination.
Luckily, researchers have come up with a plan B, a way to administer curcumin more directly to the site where it’s most needed. To do this, they combined a surfactant and a stabilizer—both of which have been proven safe for human use—into a nanocarrier that can house particles of curcumin until they reach their destination. These nanocarriers were then mixed into eye drops.
In a study of rats with eye conditions, twice daily doses of curcumin eye drops caused a decrease in the death of retinal cells compared to matched controls, which means the glaucoma was significantly slowed. But what’s even better is that, because the curcumin was delivered directly to the eye, not as much of it was required, it was able to be absorbed properly, and no ill effects were seen in the rest of the body. The rats were able to handle the treatment without signs of eye irritation or inflammation.
Putting curcumin in eye drops seems like a relatively simple solution, but it is ingenious nonetheless. This method has increased the solubility of curcumin by almost 400,000 times, meaning far less of it needs to be used, and what little amount of the substance is used is very potent and effective.
But curcumin isn’t done making a splash just yet. It’s also been shown to be helpful in detecting glaucoma to begin with (who doesn’t love a diagnostic test that treats the disease at the same time?), and researchers are hopeful that it may aid in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. This is because curcumin binds with the beta-amyloid plaques that build up in the brain and cause Alzhiemer’s. The curcumin then lights up in the retina under fluorescent light, alerting the viewer to the presence of these plaques.
“Curcumin is an exciting compound that has shown promise at detecting and treating the neurodegeneration implicated in numerous eye and brain conditions from glaucoma to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Professor Francesca Cordeiro of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, Western Eye Hospital, and Imperial College London. “So being able to administer it easily in eye drops may end up helping millions of people.”
Only time will tell exactly how useful curcumin is to the human race, but its certainly well on its way to becoming a game-changer in the healthcare world.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?