Biomedical Updates

Trehalose for Dry Eyes

About half as sweet as sucrose (table sugar), trehalose has about the same caloric content. However, a recent study has shown that it is digested more slowly, and thus has a lower glycemic index, with less insulin release than table sugar.1 In another study, the ingestion of trehalose, as compared to the sugars galactose and glucose, produced a lessened rise in blood glucose and insulin levels in both trained athletes and healthy subjects.2 As readers of this publication already know, trehalose is under investigation for a number of medical applications, including the treatment of Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases (see “The Origami of Aging” in the September 2008 issue).

Trehalose is a naturally occurring disaccharide comprised of two molecules of glucose. It is widespread in many species of plants and animals, but not mammals, where it protects cellular membranes and fragile proteins against damage resulting from oxidative stress, as well as desiccation (losing water and drying up). Survival when desiccated involves a very useful property, known as anhydrobiosis, which gives an organism the ability to survive almost complete dehydration for prolonged periods after which it can reanimate. In many species, anhydrobiosis is thought to be due to the interaction between trehalose, water, and cell structures, permitting survival during prolonged dry spells.

Trehalose belongs to a class of natural chemical chaperones that help stabilize the proper folding conformation of proteins: osmolytes. Recent studies have shown that trehalose can also prevent damage to mammalian eyes caused by desiccation and oxidative insult.3 The unique properties of trehalose have led to its investigation for the treatment of dry eye syndrome.4 In one study,4 trehalose used in an eye drop solution protected against corneal damage due to desiccation (dry eye syndrome). In the same paper, it was also found beneficial for treating the corneas of rabbits that had suffered damage from ultraviolet light, by decreasing vascularization and retaining transparency.

The discovery that the human body possesses the trehalase enzyme (needed to cleave one molecule of trehalose into two molecules of glucose) attests to the fact that humans have been exposed to this disaccharide for a very long time.


  1. van Can JG, Ijzerman TH, van Loon LJ, Brouns F, Blaak EE. Reduced glycaemic and insulinaemic responses following trehalose ingestion: implications for postprandial substrate use. Br J Nutr 2009 Nov;102(10):1395-9.
  2. Jentjens RL, Jeukendrup AE. Effects of pre-exercise ingestion of trehalose, galactose and glucose on subsequent metabolism and cycling performance. Eur J Appl Physiol 2003 Jan;88(4-5):459-65.
  3. Attanasio F, Cascio C, Fisichella S, Nicoletti VG, Pignataro B, Savarino A, Rizzarelli E. Trehalose effects on alpha-crystallin aggregates. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 2007 Mar 23;354(4):899-905.
  4. Luyckx J, Baudouin C. Trehalose: an intriguing disaccharide with potential for medical application in ophthalmology. Clin Ophthalmol 2011;5:577-81.

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