Role of Diet and Gut Microbes in Macular Degeneration

Dimitra Skondra, MD, PhD
University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Year Awarded:
Grant Duration:
July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2021
Macular Degeneration
Award Amount:
Grant Reference ID:
Award Type:
Award Region:
US Midwestern
Dimitra Skondra, MD, PhD

Role of High Fat Diet and Gut Microbiome in Macular Degeneration


Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in adults over 50, is a complex disease in which genetic risk and lifestyle factors like diet play important roles, but the mechanisms by which these factors interact remain a mystery blocking the development of a cure and of prevention measures. Gut microbiome (millions of microbes living in our gut) play a key role in human health and diseases like cancer, allergies, dementia, and asthma, and are significantly affected by diet and lifestyle factors.

The goal of this innovative proposal is to study if gut microbes could be the missing link that connects diet/lifestyle factors and AMD by investigating how changes in the microbes in the gut by diet affect AMD development. This approach will help uncover mechanisms causing AMD and could provide a new breakthrough insight into new treatments that work by changing our gut microbiome to prevent the leading cause of blindness in our community.


The goal of our proposal is to study whether gut microbiome (millions of microbes living in our gut) could be the missing link that connects lifestyle factors, like diet and genetic risk in AMD development.  

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness among adults over 50, is a complex disease in which genetic risk plays a role but disease development appears to be significantly affected by lifestyle factors like diet. Our team has shown for the first time that a Western-style diet combined with genetic risk exacerbates AMD development in animal models. Understanding the interactions between diet, genetic risk and AMD development is crucial for the development of treatments for prevention and cure.

Gut microbes play a key role in human health and disease. There is strong evidence that gut microbiome crucially affects development of diseases like Crohn’s disease, allergies, and brain diseases like Alzheimer and Parkinson’s. Gut microbes are significantly affected by diet and lifestyle factors, especially Western-style diets high in fat. Interestingly, changes in gut microbes by diet are responsible for the development of bowel disease in genetically predisposed animals.  In Aim 1, we plan to study if diet induces changes in gut microbes, which trigger changes in the retina. In Aim 2, we will study the role of diet and gut microbes in animal models of AMD.

Using unique AMD animal models with altered microbiome is an innovative and invaluable tool to answer crucial questions about gut microbiome’s role in AMD. Gut microbiome can be easily manipulated through diet, targeted probiotics, and microbiome-based agents. This project will help uncover the mechanisms causing AMD, and could provide a new breakthrough insight into novel treatments and preventative strategies for AMD.

About the Researcher

Dr. Skondra is an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at The University of Chicago and the Director of J. Terry Ernest Ocular Imaging Center. She is a highly respected retinal specialist with expertise on the medical and surgical treatment of vitreoretinal diseases. In addition to her clinical expertise, Dr. Skondra is an active researcher. As a physician-scientist, she is dedicated to investigating methods to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment strategies for retinal conditions, with special focus on the role of microbiome in AMD. Her work on animal models of AMD has provided new insight about the role of diet and lipid metabolism in the pathogenesis of AMD.

Throughout her career, Dr. Skondra has received several prestigious awards for her translational research on AMD, ocular angiogenesis and diabetic retinopathy, including the Retina Society Raymond Margherio Award, Harvard /Alcon Clinical Scholar Award, AUPO Research Award, ARVO/Alcon Early Career Clinician Scientist Award, Joslin/Tonseth Research Fellowship Award, and the Knights Templar Award.

Dr Skondra received her MD summa cum laude from the University of Crete (Greece), as valedictorian, and graduated with the highest grades in the history of the medical school. She completed her PhD and postdoctoral fellowship at the Angiogenesis Laboratory of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary at Harvard Medical School, under the supervision of Dr. Joan Miller and Dr. Evan Gragoudas, world-renowned retinal researchers and pioneers in the field of AMD. She completed her residency at New-York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College and then returned to Harvard Medical School to complete a two-year fellowship in vitreoretinal surgery. 

Personal Story

My patients are my inspiration. Experiencing in the clinic the heartbreaking and detrimental effects of AMD on the quality of life of my patients, motivates me every day to work harder to answer the questions about what causes AMD and what can we do better to prevent this devastating disease.

In my role as retina faculty member at The University of Chicago, I am committed to providing the best possible care to my patients with AMD and actively pursuing new ways to improve prevention, treatment and provide better outcomes. Being part of a leading academic institution with excellent resources and expert microbiome scientists, and given my previous experience in translational research, I am dedicated to pursue a multidisciplinary team approach of innovative research for AMD.

As a clinician-scientist and a member of the Microbiome Medicine Program at The University of Chicago, working together with a strong team of physicians and scientists investigating the role of gut microbiome in health and disease, my research focuses on the role of diet and gut microbiome in AMD.  We believe that exploring and understanding the role of gut microbes in AMD, and how this is affected by diet and lifestyle factors, can provide new answers in AMD and new strategies to prevent and treat AMD before irreversible blindness occurs.

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