Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that more than 20 million Americans age 40 and over suffer from cataracts. Though usually thought of as slowly developing over the years, cataracts can affect the newly born. According to the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, one in 250 children will develop a cataract prior to birth or during childhood.
Univ. of California, San Diego and Chinese researchers have developed a regenerative medicine approach to combat congenital cataracts by making use of lens epithelial stem cells, or LECs. Their research was published March 9 in Nature.
“Currently, the only treatment for cataracts, the leading cause of blindness worldwide, is to extract the cataractous lens and implant an artificial intraocular lens,” the researchers wrote in the study. “However, this procedure poses notable risks of complications.”
Located behind the eye’s iris, a cataract is cloudy and opaque. The murky quality of the area does not allow light to properly pass through to the retina. The scattered light rays, according to the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, distort and blur the retinal image.
The new method differs from other medicinal uses of stem cells, which are usually created in a lab and introduced into the patient’s body. LECs are already present in the human eye, generating replacement cells throughout a human’s lifespan. However, with age, the cell production rate declines.
“Our method differs conceptually from current practice, as it preserves endogenous LECs and their natural environment maximally, and regenerates lenses with visual function,” the researchers wrote.
According to the researchers, current cataract surgeries often remove the LECs within the lens.
After testing the LECs potential in animal models, the researchers organized a small human trial involving infants. The 12 infants treated with the new method were compared to a control group of 25 infants who underwent standard surgical care.
“The scientists reported fewer complications and faster healing among the 12 infants who underwent the new procedure and, after three months, a clear, regenerated biconvex lens in all of the patients’ eyes,” according to the Univ. of California, San Diego.
While the treated children appear to see normally, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that follow-up studies are needed to see how their vision develops as they age.