People with cataracts often have to subject themselves to invasive surgical or laser treatments in order to restore their sight, but according to new research, the eye condition may also be treated using an organic compound that is typically present in eye drops.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) discovered that the compound known as lanosterol has the ability to improve the eyesight of people with cataracts by effectively dissolving these proteins formations.

In a study published in the journal Nature, Dr. Kang Zhang, head of ophthalmic genetics at UCSD's Shiley Eye Institute, and his fellow researchers found that eye drops with lanosterol were able to clear the vision of three dogs that were suffering from naturally-occurring cataracts completely after receiving treatment for six weeks.

The findings also showed that the same eye drops also helped improve the eyesight of four other canines with cataracts.

Zhang said that the results of their study lead to a new type of cataract treatment that is nonsurgical and can be given to patients with moderate forms of cataracts or those who cannot avail of surgical treatments for their condition.

Dr. J. Fielding Hejtmancik of the National Eye Institute (NEI) in the United States said that the UCSD study provides new direction regarding cataract research, especially when there is demand for scientists to develop new ways to treat the eye condition.

Hejtmancik added that the aging of people who belong to the generation of baby boomers could potentially increase the number of patients with cataracts since the eye condition occurs when an individual begins to grow old.

This phenomenon could already be happening as the NEI report that the number of cataracts cases in the U.S. has increased by as much as 20 percent, from 2000 to 2010. From the initial 20.5 million known cases, it grew to 24.4 million during the period. The institute estimates that the number could even increase to around 50 million by 2050.

While surgery for cataracts are considered to be a routine procedure that has been proven safe, the demand for such an operation is expected to increase dramatically.

Both Hejtmancik and Zhang, however, pointed out that eye drops with lanosterol could offer patients with an easier and more affordable treatment for cataracts. The drops could also prevent the development of cataracts in people who might be at risk of the condition.

"The nice thing about cataracts is, you can detect them long before they become a problem to the person who has them," Hejtmancik said.

"When you do an eye exam, you see some haziness and you know that's the beginnings of a cataract. That gives you a way to screen individuals, say when they're 50."

Photo: Elizabeth Hahn | Flickr 

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