Cataracts, a condition that results in clouding of the lenses of the eye, are the cause of nearly half of all cases of blindness. Contributing factors to cataracts include heredity and advanced age. Although cataracts are more prevalent in older adults, it is a condition that affects people of all ages. This condition is highly treatable, yet new advancements have emerged to more effectively treat the problem.
How Are Cataracts Currently Treated?
Surgery, via lasers or ultrasound, is currently the go-to cataract treatment method. The cataract lens is actually removed (or dissolved) and then replaced with an artificial lens in the back of the eye. This treatment is usually manageable for older adults, but for children it is very often just one of at least a couple of surgeries necessary, as their normal growth process requires different lens sizes at different stages of their life.
Hope on the Horizon: Stem Cells Treating Cataracts
Outside of first world countries like the U.S., surgery isn’t always an accessible option. There is however hope on the horizon. New cataract treatments will be less invasive; simplified surgical methods and cataract fighting eye drops could change the landscape for cataracts sufferers of the future.
Stem cells, which have been studied in the treatment of a variety of ailments, are also being researched in the cure of ocular issues. Scientists from China and the U.S., working in collaboration with one another, recently performed surgeries to remove the cloudy cataracts from the eyes of monkeys and rabbits. The lens capsule, however, was kept intact after the procedure, along with epithelial stem cells. In the experiment these stem cells went on to regenerate the missing lens over the span of several months and vision subsequently increased. The consistently successful results produced in the animals allowed the test to be expanded to several human children, where the results were once again positive.
Additional testing needs to be done as it is thought that for adults, stem cell treatment for cataracts could be more difficult as they have less responsive epithelial stem cells than younger patients. For children however, this innovation is especially exciting because they shouldn’t need those subsequent surgeries that are currently standard with cataracts treatment.
Eye Drops that Dissolve Cataracts
Another exciting innovation is the ability of a specific steroid eye drop to dissolve away cataracts from the lenses of the eye. Researchers discovered that a predictor of a hereditary form of cataracts is caused by the lack of a specific gene that stops protein production in the eye.
Although the complete relationship is not yet scientifically understood, protein buildup and cataracts are related. This steroid, lanosterol, is naturally occurring in people without the disease. When lanosterol was introduced to animals and donated human lenses, the cataracts was shown to shrink. More studies and testing have to be done but it is thought that in the coming decade lanosterol drops would be an effective and far more accessible alternative to currently approved surgical options.
Vision, so deeply affects our ability to experience the world and it is exciting news that new treatments for cataracts are in our future. Whether it is steroid treatments or stem cells for cataracts, progress is being made to treat this disease.