Stem Cell Treatment for Cataracts
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in spite of the new surgical techniques developed in many countries for the past years, cataract is still the leading cause of blindness all over the world except in developed countries. Un-operated cataract is also a major cause of vision impairment.
Cataract is the clouding of the lens of the eye which impairs the passing of light to the retina. Most cases of cataracts are related to aging, but some babies are born with the condition mainly caused by a genetic disorder. A cataract may also develop after an eye injury or a disease. There are also other factors that might increase one’s risk in developing a cataract.
The lost vision can be restored by surgically removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens implant. But what if there’s a less invasive treatment for cataract?
Stem cell therapy (regenerative medicine) is being continuously studied to develop treatments for a variety of different diseases. The concept is based on the fact that all body tissues have stem cells that can replace damaged cells. The procedure involves creating stem cells in the lab and transplanting it to the patient.
The use of stem cells is now being studied to treat cataract. Except that instead of creating stem cells in labs, the procedure makes use of the remaining stem cells inside the eye to regenerate the lens. The lens epithelial stem cells (LECs) or progenitor cells of the human eye creates replacement lens cells, but its production usually decline as we age.
A team of researchers developed a surgical technique to take advantage of the regenerative power of LECs. The less invasive surgical method preserves the integrity of the lens capsule. With this technique, the damaged lens is removed while keeping the functional stem cells. The remaining LECs then regenerate a new clear, functional lens. The aim of the surgery is to let the eye regenerate functional lens with accommodative and refractive abilities while significantly reducing the risks for complications.
The study was first conducted on rabbits and macaques, and once the regenerative potential of LECs has been established, a small human clinical trial was pursued.
The human trial involved 12 babies under 2 years old. These 12 babies underwent the new procedure, while a control group of 25 babies received the current standard of surgical care. The researchers reported that the 12 babies showed fewer complications and faster healing compared to the control group. All of the operated eyes of the 12 patients also regenerated a clear biconvex lens 3 months after the procedure.
The current study was limited to pediatric patients, but the team is currently looking into treating age-related cataracts. Stem cells may be lesser in older adults but they can still benefit from the treatment. Regeneration and healing might take longer compared to the pediatric patients. Clinical trials on adults are yet to be conducted in order to fully establish its efficacy and safety in the treatment of age-related cataracts.
This new approach may soon be able to offer a safer and less invasive treatment with the promise of better results.