Good news for people with cataracts may be coming into view – so to speak – with a simple eye-drop solution. The need for cataract removal surgery may soon be a thing of the past.
Why is this so exciting? If your eyesight is a perfect 20/20, you might not be familiar with this type of vision loss.
“Cataract is clouding of the lens of the eye which prevents clear vision,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). A cataract is a milky layer of proteins that collect on top of the lens and obstruct vision.
Think of the windshield of a car that is foggy and dirty, making it hard to see the road ahead. A squirt of windshield fluid and some wiper-blade action can usually restore a good visual field.
Did you know that the human body comes equipped with eyeball wipers to remove the filmy build-up? “The human lens is composed of crystalline proteins. When young and healthy, these proteins act to keep the lens clear,” according to VeryWellHealth. Aging, injury, and congenital defect disrupt, clump together, and disintegrate the body’s natural “windshield wipers.”
Cataract is one of the leading causes of vision impairment. The WHO says that, in 2010, there were about 20 million people worldwide who were clinically blind. Half of those cases (51%) were caused by cataract. The majority of low vision cases in the U.S. have also been attributed to cataract.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave these facts as of September 2015:
- An estimated 20.5 million (17.2%) Americans aged 40 years and older have a cataract in one or both eyes
- 6.1 million (5.1%) have had their lens removed operatively
- The total number of people who have cataracts is estimated to increase to 30.1 million by 2020
Cataracts develop naturally as we age, after eye damage, disease, or inflammation, and (rarely) in newborn children. It is a rare person over age 55 who does not have some presence of a cataract.
The traditional way to treat cataracts in the west has been to remove them surgically. The natural lens obscured by a cataract is removed and replaced by a synthetic intraocular lens. Many patients report successful outcomes from this medical procedure, but some aren’t as fortunate and never regain good eyesight.
The WHO says that vision impairment due to cataract is “avoidable” because surgery is normally an available option.
However, the cost of invasive cataract surgery is high, in part because it takes a team of ophthalmologists and co-managing optometrists to undertake this delicate operation. An ophthalmologist uses ultrasound or laser to remove the cataract before inserting a new intraocular lens implant.
Patient health insurance may not cover all – or any – of the cost of cataract removal surgery.
Although westerners take medical procedures such as cataract surgery as a given, such services aren’t always present in more remote parts on the globe.
Where available, patients usually have cataracts removed in an outpatient setting with only local anesthesia required. The procedure can be as brief as one hour, and it takes about eight weeks to recover fully.
Cataracts have been associated with diabetes mellitus, taking prednisone steroids, and as a consequence of some other eye operation such as retinal surgery.
The need for cataract surgery may soon be a thing of the past. A scientific team in California has been testing a steroid called lanosterol in eye drops that would be a non-invasive (non-surgical) way to treat the moderate formation of cataracts.
The discovery that lanosterol might be linked to cataract formation was a fluke. Two children had inherited a condition which caused them to develop cataracts at a young age. They both had the same genetic mutation which blocked lanosterol production – nature’s eyeball-cleaning system.
Neither parent had this genetic mutation, and neither parent developed cataracts. Scientists wondered if lanosterol was the agent that kept the eye’s lens clear by preventing the breakdown and clumping of the clear proteins that occur naturally, clouding vision.
The first lanosterol tests were on human lens cells which responded as theorized: the lens proteins stopped clumping and stayed clear with increased transparency.
Subsequent tests subjects included rabbits (85% reduced cataracts over six days) and dogs. Black Labrador Retrievers, Queensland Heelers and Miniature Pinschers all showed results similar to the rabbits.
Lanosterol reduced cataract size and increased lens transparency. Study co-author Ruben Abagyan stated in a 2015 press release:
“I think the natural next step is looking to translate it into humans. There’s nothing more exciting than that.”
While human clinical trials are underway, it may be a few years before cataract-busting eye drops appear on store shelves.
How do you know if you have a cataract problem?
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF CATARACT
- Blurry vision
- Reduced vision at night
- Colors look faded
- Your sensitivity to glare increases
- Visibility of halos while looking directly at the light
- Double vision
- Power of your prescription glasses keeps changing
There are proactive steps anyone can take to reduce the risk of developing cataracts.
PREVENTION OF CATARACT
- Reduce or eliminate cigarette smoking
- Avoid exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light
- Lower a high body mass index (BMI)
If you are experiencing vision loss, seek professional help immediately. Many conditions are treated better when detected early