UTHSC researcher studies sphingolipid signaling in ocular and neurodegenerative disease and diabetes  

Dr. Nawajes Mandal has spent his career at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) trying to better understand lipid and sphingolipid signaling in ocular and neurodegenerative disease and diabetes. One of his current projects may help slow the progression of retinal degeneration, a group of diseases that leads to deterioration of the retina caused by cell death. 

Dr. Nawajes Mandal

Dr. Mandal is a Professor of Ophthalmology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Assistant Director of Research in Ophthalmology at UTHSC. Dr. Mandal also has an appointment with Memphis VA Medical Center as a Research Health Scientist. During his postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. Mandal developed an interest in lipids, specifically sphingolipids in the eye and other inflammatory and neurodegenerative conditions. At the time, Dr. Mandal was one of the only researchers in the US seeking to understand the role of sphingolipid signaling in certain eye diseases. His lab is still one of only a few in the country studying the intersection of sphingolipids and ocular disease. 

For many years, Dr. Mandal has sought to repurpose an existing FDA-approved multiple sclerosis drug, Gilenya or FTY720, for treatment of retinal degeneration. Dr. Mandal has been investigating the role of a sphingolipid, ceramide, in furthering cell death in the retina. According to his research, Gilenya has been effective at decreasing these ceramide levels, hopefully slowing the progression of the disease.  

“Unfortunately, those cells will eventually die, and we cannot reverse that,” says Dr. Mandal. “It is mostly prevention; we do not have a complete cure. But if we can keep the disease in control and delay the onset of blindness, that is the goal.” 

Currently, Dr. Mandal and his team are working to develop a topical formulation of the drug like an eye drop that people  could use regularly to keep their cells healthy longer. If their hypothesis is correct, Dr. Mandal says this treatment could  be available in a wide variety of retinal degeneration applications.  

“UTRF is helping us find out if there is any commercial potential for our research,” says Dr. Mandal. “We are basic scientists; I do not know anything about bringing something to the market.”  

Earlier this year, Dr. Mandal and Dr. Sam Dagogo-Jack, professor of medicine and director of the General Clinical  Research Center, received a nearly $2 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney  Diseases for a diabetes pathophysiology study. The two researchers will study the connection between ceramides and sphingolipids in diabetes progression. Dr. Mandal also received a grant last year from the Department of Defense to study the therapeutic potential of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) before and after mild traumatic brain injury for preventing or diminishing visual impairments.   

“Dr. Nawajes Mandal is a prolific researcher who is actively involved in numerous projects that have the potential to help many people and revolutionize his field,” says James Parrett, UTRF Technology Manager. “UTRF looks forward to partnering with Dr. Mandal on future advancements of his work.”

Dr. Mandal leads a group of research students and scientists at UTHSC comprised of young students (graduate, undergraduate and medical), post-docs, junior faculties and technical staffs

Dr. Mandal was born into a teaching family – his father, who taught elementary school, wanted his son to go even further and become a high school teacher.  

“But I did a little more and became a professor,” he jokes.  

One of the driving forces throughout his life and career has been the desire to help people, no matter the field or project.  

“I think my main objective is to help people,” says Dr. Mandal. “I am always looking for applications of research. Anything that can help further in reducing suffering in the world.”