Stem Cells Used to Correct Infant Cataracts
Leaving these cells behind during removal of damaged tissue led to regeneration of new, clear lens
By Amy Norton
WEDNESDAY, March 9, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- A new surgical technique for removing cataracts might allow the eye's stem cells to regenerate a healthy lens, if preliminary findings hold up.
In an early study of infants born with cataracts, researchers used a minimally invasive approach to remove the eye's damaged lens -- while keeping the native stem cells intact. Stem cells are primitive cells that give rise to different types of mature tissue.
Those stem cells were then able to form a new lens, the researchers reported March 9 in the online edition of the journal Nature.
Experts cautioned that more research is needed to know whether the approach is better than the standard treatment for infantile cataract.
And it's not clear whether it could be used for the much more common type of cataract that affects older adults, said Dr. Ali Djalilian, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, who was not involved in the research.
"But are these findings interesting and exciting? Definitely," said Djalilian, who also directs the corneal epithelial biology and tissue engineering lab at the University of Illinois School of Medicine, in Chicago.
A cataract is a clouding of the eye's lens, usually caused when proteins in the lens start to clump together as a person ages. But it's also possible for infants to be born with a cataract in one or both eyes. About three out of every 10,000 children have cataracts, according to the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.
Right now, doctors may perform surgery to remove a baby's cataract, but there is controversy about whether the lens should be replaced with an artificial lens -- which is standard for adults. The other options are contact lenses or glasses.
"There's a huge need for better treatments for congenital cataract," said researcher Dr. Kang Zhang, founding director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
Zhang said his team's approach -- tested in animals and 12 babies with congenital cataracts -- could offer a way to harness the body's own healing capacity.