In a breakthrough that scientists are calling remarkable, cataracts in the lens of the eye can now be cured by inducing stem cells to regenerate and grow a living lens to reverse blindness in just three months. Surgeons have succeeded in restoring sight in 12 infants born with congenital cataract (a clouded lens at birth).
This leap in regenerative medicine can potentially help millions of people by treating cataracts with their own stem cells. The current treatment for cataracts involves surgery in which the opacified lens is replaced with a plastic lens. The procedure has associated complications such as infection and inflammation, as well as a characteristic nighttime halo effect on the vision. The surgery is even riskier in babies who have eyes that are still developing.
An age-related cataract occurs due to clumps of protein building up on the lens, clouding it and leading to decreased vision. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have applied ground-breaking stem cell technology to treat cataracts by coaxing stem cells to grow a lens, obviating the need for surgery.
Dr. Kang Zhang of the UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine is excited by the prospect of regenerating a person’s own cells to repair damaged tissues and treat diseases that were previously thought of as irreversible. Harnessing the body’s own regenerative power is a revolutionary approach that will define medicine in the decades to come. Stem cell treatment as a safer option to cataract surgery may well prove to be the shift that will lead to other modalities of medicine.
The 12 infants born with congenital cataract underwent stem cell therapy and were found to heal more quickly and with fewer complications compared to the control group of 25 infants who had conventional treatment with cataract surgery.
With more than 20 million Americans over the age of 40 affected by cataracts and 3.5 million lens replacement procedures performed in the United States every year, cataract surgery is by far the most common procedure performed by an eye surgeon. The federal government spends more than 3 billion dollars a year on the treatment of cataracts through Medicare. The average cost of cataract surgery for each eye is more than $3,000.
The artificial intraocular lens inserted during cataract surgery that restores a person’s sight, but many patients are left with poor vision and require glasses for reading and driving. With the new stem cell technique, the ophthalmic surgeon removes the clouded lens, but leaves its capsule behind. Regenerative stem cells in the vicinity are then moved near the capsule where they regrow a curved, clear, and fully-functional lens in three months.
The hypothesis that stem cells in the eye can be prompted to regenerate a lens was first tested in rabbits and primates. The successful treatment of the 12 infants is being hailed as a remarkable achievement and one of the finest in the field of regenerative medicine.
Calling it science at its best, leading ophthalmologists around the world are enthusiastic about the regenerative and therapeutic potential of stem cells. This new approach could potentially replace the current best practice for the treatment of cataracts, but perhaps what is even more promising is that the technology has the potential to restore sight in people with permanent blindness due to a range of other conditions.