Indian-origin researcher reveals elevated iron levels can trigger retinal degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, and glaucoma

Ritu Jha-

Indian-origin researcher working on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, glaucoma, and also age-related macular degeneration says there are a lot of diseases nowadays that people are detecting in the eye before the disease can manifest physically, in the brain.

The young researcher, Suman Chaudhary[Above photo], is taking a very close look at the human eye to get a better understanding of these debilitating diseases. Her research has revealed that eyes are the means to catch an early glimpse of these ailments before their deadly effects can manifest fully. Chaudhary says that it is possible that neurodegenerative ailments first manifest in the eyes of the patients and that she may have isolated a means to identify these early signs.

A Research Fellow at Schepens Eye Research Institute, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard University, Chaudhary is from Chandigarh, India and she came to the US in November 2018.  The research work and findings of Chaudhary have a rather unique recommendation to make – careful intake of iron and regulation of hepcidin in our bodies. “Drug companies can explore possible treatments to regulate hepcidin levels to treat Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

“I have worked with neurodegenerative disorders of the brain and the eye. I have also worked on Alzheimer’s disease and glaucoma, both are related to neurodegeneration. Now I’m working on age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an eye disease associated with age and associated with neurodegeneration that can blur your central vision. It happens when aging causes damage to the macula — the part of the eye that controls sharp, straight-ahead vision. The macula is part of the retina (the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye).”

“The eyes are considered as a window to the brain. There are a lot of diseases nowadays that people are detecting in the eye before the disease can manifest physically, in the brain. I have publications on two diseases – Alzheimer’s and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD), another neurodegenerative disorder which has a very low occurrence in the world but have major implications in understanding infectious proteins.”

Research endeavors pursued by established researchers like Chaudhary holds the key to understanding several pathophysiological events in the human body which in return facilitates designing blueprints for novel therapeutics.

She says that the reason behind choosing the neurodegenerative research field is that Alzheimer’s, glaucoma, and aged-macular degeneration are prevalent in both developing as well as developed countries. “In India, these diseases are prevalent and many people with macular degeneration don’t even know they have it. Whereas in the US, there are clinics that already pre-test at a very early stage in elderly population-50-60 years of age. But in countries like India, there is no testing facility like that. People go almost blind and then they realize this was a disease and by then there’s no turning back. But the place I’m working in right now is a very good establishment I want to do something to help the people who suffer from these diseases that are prevalent everywhere,” she said.

Chaudhary during her early research work realized the vital connection between the brain and the eye. This is when she authored a highly cited (57 in 2.5 years) comprehensive review article titled ‘Retinal Degeneration and Alzheimer’s Disease: An Evolving Link’ that educated the field that the eye can be a window into impending neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Her findings have revealed that hepcidin – an iron level regulator – may be the primary culprit that catalyzes neuro-ocular pathologies. This is when she brought to light one of her most novel finding-hepcidin, which was thought to be produced by the liver was also produced locally in the eye.

The findings were published by Experimental Eye Research in the article titled ‘Local synthesis of hepcidin in the anterior segment of the eye: A novel observation with physiological and pathological implications’. This motivated her lab to investigate the clinical relevance of this finding. Chaudhary realized the importance of including clinical samples in her studies and achieved it by collaborating with her lab and cornea eye bank (Eversight). Chaudhary also collaborated with Harvard NeuroBioBank and acquired more than 50 clinical brain samples, widening the implications of her study.

Her first authored original research work was a milestone in establishing a successful correlation between dysregulated hepcidin/iron levels to neurodegeneration diseases, especially Alzheimer’s Disease and Prion disease. No previous study has ever shown this connection with so many clinical samples. Based on the significance of the study and its findings, the research study was picked as Editor’s Choice by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) also serves as the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center and is the only Center of its kind in the USA. One of the objectives of the center involves the transfer of the data obtained through research activities to the CDC and the State Public Health Departments to monitor the incidence of prion diseases in the USA and investigate possible cases in which the disease has been acquired from other humans or from animals.

Chaudhary’s findings pertaining to hepcidin/iron and prion disorder at CWRU are of vital significance to the community. She successfully published her unprecedented original research work using brain samples from prion-infected human subjects in Prion titled ‘Upregulation of brain hepcidin in prion diseases’. This is the first-ever study to link hepcidin to infectious prion disorder.

“You can say that from the initial stages to the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease, there is an increase in hepcidin/iron, which causes oxidative stress, creates a toxic environment for the brain, and can be associated with the degeneration that is happening in the brain. Excess iron is actually not very good for us. There should be an equal balance. Iron intake is recommended for people who are anemic or who actually have a condition. But if you do not have any deficiencies and if your doctors don’t recommend it, it’s not advisable to just take iron for more energy,” Chaudhary added.

Chaudhary and the other researchers she is working with were the ones to first detect the presence of hepcidin in the anterior portion of the eye. “We were the first ones to detect that the anterior portion of the eye is synthesizing its own hepcidin and the role of hepcidin in glaucoma. The link between hepcidin and Alzheimer’s has been explored previously in a few labs, but there is no concrete research on how the disease is increasing with the increase of hepcidin. There are other factors also involved like inflammation, for example. I’m not just focusing on hepcidin, I’m also showing how hepcidin and inflammation are related. My focus is revealing the role of hepcidin in both the eye and the brain.

Before coming to the USA, Chaudhary worked in a hospital in India and went to remote places in India to work on creating awareness regarding intestinal parasites. She received her doctorate in Australia and her thesis focused on synthesizing nanoparticles encapsulating functional ingredients of neem plant to facilitate biopesticidal and anti-cancer therapies. “The use of synthetic pesticides is leading to incidents of cancer in the general population, not just farmers who are directly exposed to it, but also people who are consuming fruits and vegetables which have pesticides. Synthetic pesticides used 120 years ago are still present in the soil and the water. My research aimed at designing nanoparticles to encapsulate herbal pesticides, and bio-pesticide to improve its effectiveness and lower its synthetic harmful effects” Chaudhary added.


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