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All-women IIT team develops improved treatment for fungal eye infection that affects farmers

Infected vegetable matter can cause fungal infection in eyes called fungal keratitis in farmers, which can also cause blindness. Natamycin is the only FDA-approved drug used to treat it.

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New Delhi: An all-women team of scientists from Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi has developed a way to improve an existing anti-fungal drug that could help treat a fungal eye infection that primarily affects farmers.

According to the team at IIT Delhi, farmers are prone to vegetative trauma to the eye,  generally caused by infected vegetable matter such as plant leaves. Vegetative trauma often leads to fungal infection of the cornea in the eyes, also known as fungal keratitis.

Fungal keratitis can cause blindness in one eye and the infection can also be caused by the use of contact lenses, according to the US CDC.

A study in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, published in October 2020, noted that  the highest annual incidence of this fungal infection per 1 lakh people is reported in southern Asia. Furthermore, India accounts for more than 50 per cent of the total fungal keratitis cases.

According to the researchers, drugs currently available for fungal keratitis are less effective, especially in severe disease. For instance, the US FDA-approved Natamycin is not easily absorbed by the cells and also has low efficacy.

It requires prolonged and frequent dosing, which causes discomfort to patients.

However, a study led by Professor Archana Chugh from the Kusuma School of Biological Sciences at IIT Delhi successfully developed a way to attach a novel peptide to the drug molecule that makes the drug more effective. A peptide is a short chain of amino acids, which are also the building blocks of proteins.

“These peptides are known to have the ability to carry molecules with them in the cells. Therefore, when poorly permeable Natamycin was attached to the peptide, the formed complex showed better antifungal effect,” said Chugh in a statement.

She worked with her PhD students Aastha Jain, Harsha Rohira, and Sujithra Shankar for the research. Dr Sushmita G. Shah, an ophthalmologist and Cornea Specialist from Dr CM Shah Memorial Charitable Trust and Eye Life in Mumbai was also part of the research team.

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The study

The study, published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics in May, found that modified drug penetration was five times higher than just Natamycin alone in rabbits, thus allowing scientists to lower the dosage frequency.

The team also found that 44 per cent of mice showed complete resolution of fungal infection with the novel drug as compared with 13 per cent of mice that were treated with Natamycin suspension only.

Chugh, however, added that before this modified drug can be used in patients, it will have to undergo clinical trials.

“Collaboration between Clinicians and Scientists is important to develop newer and better drugs, diagnostic devices, etc., which can improve patient care. We are very excited with the results obtained so far and look forward to initiating a clinical trial with the participation of the industry and other relevant agencies,” said Dr Shah.

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