While you might generally associate cataracts with more mature patients, as many as three in every 10,000 children suffer from the condition, which can cause significant vision loss. Now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) have tested a new approach to tackling congenital cataracts, turning to existing stem cells to repair the patient lenses post-surgery, restoring vision.

Current treatments for patients with congenital cataracts – a leading cause of blindness in children – is to extract the clouded lens, and implant an artificial lens to take its place. That procedure can be be dangerous, incurring significant risk to the patient in the form of potential pathogen transmission and immune rejection.

The alternative treatment that the researchers are working on approaches the problem from a different angle, looking not to replace the lens, but instead to make use of the regenerative potential of stem cells already present.

Specifically, the work focuses on lens epithelial stem cells (LECs), which generate replacement lens cells throughout the life of a patient. Current cataracts surgery removes the vast majority of LECs, but the newly developed treatment would instead see the cataracts removed, but the stem cells left in place, helping to then restore the patient's vision by regenerating the lens.

The method was first successfully tested on rabbits and macaque monkeys, before a clinical trial was conducted, involving 12 infants under two years old. Three months after the procedures, the patients had healed quickly, with the researchers observing successful lens regeneration.

A control group of 25 infants received the current standard surgical treatment for congenital cataracts. Those patients were found to experience a higher rate of inflammation following the surgery, as well as other complications, including lens clouding.

This first clinical trial is a big step for the new treatment, and the researchers believe that it could signal a huge change in how cataracts are treated.

"We believe that our new approach will result in a paradigm shift in cataract surgery and may offer patients a safer and better treatment option in the future," said UC San Diego's Kang Zhang.

The researchers published their work in the journal Nature.

Source: UC San Diego