Although glaucoma causes blindness by destroying retinal cells, research has shown that orally-ingested curcumin – a chemical derived from the spice turmeric – can help keep that from happening. Now, scientists are stating that newly-developed curcumin eye drops could be even more effective.

The problem with taking curcumin orally is the fact that it isn't very soluble, meaning that it doesn't dissolve and subsequently enter the bloodstream easily. As a result, patients have to take as many as 24 tablets a day in order for it to have much of an effect – ingesting that much curcumin can cause unwanted gastrointestinal side effects.

With that in mind, scientists at University College London and Imperial College London have created a liquid medication that delivers the chemical directly to the eye in the form of drops. The solution carries the curcumin within a surfactant combined with a stabilizing agent, both of which are already used in other eye products.

This approach reportedly not only allows the medication to deliver a higher concentration of curcumin than is possible using other eye drops currently in development, but it also increases the chemical's solubility by a factor of nearly 400,000.

In lab tests, the researchers administered the drops twice a day for three weeks to rats suffering from ongoing retinal ganglion cell loss. When subsequently compared to a group of untreated rats with the same condition, it was found that the treated animals experienced a significant reduction in cell loss, plus they didn't experience side effects such as eye irritation or inflammation.

It is now hoped that the medication could eventually be used to more effectively treat glaucoma in humans, and possibly also to better diagnose Alzheimer's disease – curcumin causes Alzheimer's-related amyloid plaque deposits in patients' retinas to light up, allowing the disease to be detected.

"As we live longer, diseases such as glaucoma and Alzheimer's are steadily increasing," says Prof. Francesca Cordeiro, lead author of a paper on the research. "We believe our findings could make a major contribution at helping the lives of people affected by these devastating diseases."

The paper was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.