Improving Antioxidant Therapy: Using Light to Separate the Good from the Bad

May. 18, 2015

We all know that antioxidants are good for us: most (if not all) dietary advice includes a plug for lots of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables like blueberries, spinach and sweet potatoes. So why have so many antioxidant-based therapies failed in clinical trials? A $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant to a junior investigator at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry aims to find out.

Antioxidants are beneficial because they protect the body from reactive oxygen species – a type of free radical that contributes to diseases like atherosclerosis and stroke – and they may also help to prevent free radical damage during aging. But, research suggests that small amounts of reactive oxygen species can be beneficial and are necessary for many cellular functions, like being able to respond to different types of stress.

Understanding the protective versus the damaging effects of reactive oxygen species could be the key to developing a safe and effective antioxidant therapy that lowers the risk of certain diseases. Unfortunately, when it comes to reactive oxygen species, scientists don’t have a useful tool to determine what’s good and what’s bad.

Over the next five years, Andrew Wojtovich, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Nephrology Division, will study a new system that uses light to examine when and where reactive oxygen species are produced and precisely how they influence cells. This new approach uses the principles of optogenetics – a combination of genetics and optics that allows scientists to control particular events within specific cells.

Wojtovich and Thomas Foster, Ph.D., a professor of Imaging Sciences and Biomedical Engineering and a co-investigator on the new grant, will study the effects of reactive oxygen species in the roundworm C. elegans, an organism that has many similarities to mammals.  

“We already know that small amounts of reactive oxygen species can extend lifespan in worms and facilitate wound healing in both worm and mammalian nerve cells, which is counterintuitive since they also contribute to age-related damage and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” said Wojtovich, who is currently working in the laboratories of Keith Nehrke, Ph.D. and Paul Brookes, Ph.D., where he has authored fifteen papers over the last five years. “This award will support our ultimate goal of directing future antioxidant therapies to eliminate detrimental and spare beneficial reactive oxygen species.”  

“In today’s competitive funding environment, receiving a substantial research grant as a junior faculty member is a unique accomplishment and conveys NIH’s enthusiasm for the work,” said Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor in Medicine, Neurology, Pathology and Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “This award demonstrates URMC’s strong commitment to training, mentoring and fostering the career goals of the next generation of scientists.”

Wojtovich will be presenting a seminar on this work at the 2015 University of Rochester Genetics Day on Friday, May 22.