Photograph — Rakesh Ahuja

A new drug developed under the supervision of lead researcher, Kang Zhang could one day cure cataracts. According to a team of scientists,  a naturally occurring molecule called lanosterol, shrank canine cataracts after it was administered to dogs with an eye dropper. Although the effects are yet to be tested on humans, subsequent findings have the potential to offer an alternative to surgery.

Cataracts occurs due to the weakening of crystallin proteins that make up the lens in our eyes. This causes the impaired proteins to form clumps and a milky brown or blue layer disease. Whereas cataracts do not spread from one eye to the other, it may occur separately in both eyes. It is the leading cause of blindness in Africa with 600,000 people developing cataract blindness yearly out of 5.88 million cases of visual impairment.

A lot of Africans know only a little about this medical condition, while others lack access to proper eye care services. Another challenge has been the low cataract surgical rate in Africa over the years.

Many in countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda have been blind for days, months or even years. The sight of people wearing bandages across their eyes and in desperate need of aid is quite disturbing.  Statistics from the Nigerian National Blindness and Visual Impairment Survey showed that 42 out of every 1,000 adults aged 40 and above are blind and overall, two out of every three Nigerians are blinded by avoidable causes like cataracts. Considering the fact that surgery is the only remedy available, this development may provide a solution for many who can barely afford such treatment.

The quest for this potential cure began with two children- patients of Kang Zhang of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. Their condition was a congenital and inherited form which happened to be a catalyst for the production of lanosterol, which the researchers suspected might obstruct cataract-forming proteins from clumping in unaffected eyes. During the first phase of the experiments, they confirmed their instincts about lanosterol ability to ward off the proteins. The results of the next experiment were however more convincing.

Eye drops containing the molecule were tested on Dogs with naturally occurring cataracts. Six weeks later, the size and usual cloudiness of the cataracts had noticeably reduced. “Our study identifies lanosterol as a key molecule in the prevention of lens protein aggregation and points to a novel strategy for cataract prevention and treatment,” the researchers concluded.

Scientist at the US National Eye Institute, J Fielding Hejtmancik explained that these findings are still at an introductory stage. “Before there are any human trials, the scientists will probably test other molecules to see if they might work even better.”

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