A 'Remarkable' New Treatment for Cataracts

Peter Russell

March 15, 2016

Scientists have described a cure for cataracts that involves regrowing the lens in the eye using stem cells.

The new treatment, which has been tested on young children who are born with cataracts or develop them after birth, is being described as "remarkable" by one expert.

Cloudy Visions

Cataracts occur when changes in the lens of the eye cause, cloudy, misty or blurry vision. Current treatment for cataracts involves making a tiny cut in the eye, extracting the lens and replacing it with a plastic lens.

A paper published in the journal Nature describes the use of an animal’s own stem cells to treat cataracts.

The scientists at the University of California San Diego report on a method of removing cataracts while preserving epithelial stem/progenitor cells (LECs), which have an important role in lens regeneration.

They say this method not only allows the lens to regenerate naturally but is less surgically invasive than current treatment methods.

Congenital Cataracts

So far the team has demonstrated successful lens regeneration in rabbits and macaques, as well as in 12 human infants.

The researchers say that in babies treated this way, recovery and vision was superior to patients who received standard care.

The research could open the way for this new method of treatment to be made available to older patients with cataracts.

Cataracts are a very common eye condition leading to 30,000 treatment procedures in the UK each year. Cataracts in babies and children are rare, affecting between 3 and 4 in every 10,000.

'Science at Its Best'

Commenting on the study in a statement, Dr Dusko Ilic, reader in stem cell science at King’s College London, says: "The basic science research led to the hypothesis that preserving and stimulating autologous stem cells in the eye might promote regeneration of a surgically removed lens. And indeed, their hypothesis was true. They proved it first by testing a new surgical approach in rabbits and primates before successfully treating 12 infants. It is science at its best."

In a statement, Professor Graham McGeown, deputy head of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, says the study "provides clear ‘proof in principle’ of an important new treatment for cataracts in children".

He adds: "Because the new treatment doesn’t involve introducing any new or non-native cells but simply seeks to preserve those normally found in the eye through delicate surgical technique, such an early trial was ethically justified.

"They showed that this new approach dramatically reduced the risk of sight damaging side effects when compared with the current ‘best practice’ treatment, which involves more destructive surgery followed by implantation of an artificial lens.

"It is unclear, however, whether this would be of benefit in adults with cataracts, for whom current surgical techniques are usually successful."