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By Shannon Pierce
The National Eye Institute states that the number one cause of blindness today is cataracts. At the age of 80, more than half of Americans have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. Globally, about 20 million people get the surgery a year.
What causes a cataract? When the proteins in the eye lens join together to form clumps, it can blur our vision or even block vision altogether. Luckily, treatment is fairly simple and the damaged eye lens can be treated with a plastic lens. The treatment isn’t always permanent, however, and patients may need to have it corrected years later. Today, our researchers are trying to fix this problem of cataracts and the not-so-perfect surgeries and treatments by developing a way that our own stem cells could replace the damaged lens on it’s own.
First, Dr. Kang Zhang of Sun Yat-sen University of China and the University of California, San Diego worked with his colleagues to try to adjust a former technique where the damaged lens is removed, yet stem cells are left behind to potentially regenerate the lens on their own. Dr. Zhang was attempting to find a better alternative to the current cataract surgery procedure that destroys much of the lens and the key cells that lead to restoration. On 12 children, his procedure was successful, yet needs to be monitored as they grow. The surgery may not be as effective in adults, however, because they have less stem cells in the eye.
In another study, a team of Japanese researchers found a way to turn ordinary skin cells into various types of cells found in the eye, indicating there may be a way to grow new eye parts. Kohji Nishida of Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan worked with his researchers to grow eye cells from a certain type of stem cell generated from ordinary cells, like skin cells. The cells are then tricked into becoming stem cells, and may be re-directed to the cell of choice. This is also called corneal transplantation, which was performed on rabbits in the study. The rabbits grew corneas. Unfortunately, our bodies may reject the implant within five years.
Dr. Julie Daniels of University College London wrote in Nature, "As an alternative, the conversion of adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which can develop into any cell type, could supply enough cells for therapy."
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