A new medical procedure aims to use stem cells to treat cataracts in children's eyes. Currently the only other medical options are surgery or transplants, but both are risky procedures. This new process uses a child's own cells to regenerate their transparent lens tissues.
When people develop cataracts, their eye lenses begin to cloud. This, in turn, affects their vision and, in many cases, leads to blindness. There are many types of cataracts including secondary, traumatic, radiation and congenital. Secondary cataracts usually occur after a person has surgery for other eye issues. Traumatic cataracts typically form after a person injures an eye. Radiation cataracts grow when a person is exposed to some level of radiation. The cataracts we're talking about in this article are congenital, which develop in babies, either when they're born or at some point during their childhood. Normally these cataracts form in both eyes.
"Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness."
Cataracts affect millions of people in the US
Cataracts affect about 24.4 million people in the U.S, according to the National Eye Institute. By 2050 the Institute expects this number to more than double. While the increase seems dramatic, it really isn't after we consider how much cataract cases rose between 2000 and 2010. During that time, cases increased by 20 percent from 20.5 to 24.4 million. According to the World Health Organization, cataracts are also the leading cause of blindness, and, by the age of 80, over 50 percent of Americans either have cataracts or have undergone surgery to correct the condition.
Cataracts are much more severe in children than adults
Cataracts are typically common in adults 40 years of age or older, according to the National Eye Institute, but, in rare cases, children can also develop them. According to Suraj Bhat, associate professor of ophthalmology and director of the Vision Molecular Biology Laboratory at the UCLA Stein Eye Institute, early childhood cataracts can be much more severe than cataracts developed by adults. That's why it's important to correct them immediately, if possible.
"In early childhood, cataracts are very bad," Bhat told CBS News. "We need light to enter into the eyes at a young age to get proper brain function, otherwise, information does not get transferred to the developing brain."
One of the major difficulties with performing traditional eye surgery on children to remove cataracts is that it can cause opacity in their line of sight. Their eyes are also still growing, so glasses typically fail to completely correct their vision. Stem cell treatments, on the other hand, are much less risky because the child's own cells are being used to recreate the transparent lens tissues.
The next question is whether the surgery works on adults. Scientists have yet to try the operation on adults, but Dr. Kang Zhang, the chief of ophthalmic genetics at UC San Diego's Shiley Eye Institute, told CBS News that he and his team are "now planning a study to test this approach" in older generations.