Stem cell research may be capable of helping infants with eye problems.

Stem cell therapies may make cataract surgery more precise

Cataract surgery is one of the most common procedures in the United States, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute. Some 20.5 million American adults will be affected by cataracts, a condition whereby the lens becomes clouded because of a thin opaque film that can lead to vision problems or blindness. Nearly 3 million individuals undergo surgery to alleviate the problem each year.

Though the treatment has been available for many years now, CBS News reported that researchers from the University of California San Diego have developed a less-intrusive means of fixing cataracts by leveraging the power of stem cells. This is especially important for infants and children who are suffering from the condition.

How it works
At present, removing cataracts involves replacing a patient's eye lens with an artificial one. A surgeon makes a small incision on the front of the eye and removes the lens. Dr. Kang Zhang, the chief of ophthalmic genetics at UC San Diego's Shiley Eye Institute, explained to CBS News how the new treatment works.

"Unlike [the] current way of cataract surgery, which destroys over half of lens stem cells and requires implantation of a plastic intranet ocular lens, we devised a new surgery to make a very small opening at the side of a cataractous lens bag, remove [the] cataract inside, allow the opening to heal, and promote dormant lens stem cells to re-grow an entirely new lens with vision," he said.

Zhang stated that this procedure could eventually have major implications for adult patients. The American population is growing older, which will likely lead to more individuals in need of such a treatment. Similarly, there is hope that stem cells could be used to treat other eye conditions. For now, however, the stem cell therapy can be used to help some of the most vulnerable patients.

Treating congenital cataracts
Though cataracts can be a condition brought on later in life, it can also be a problem from birth, and Zhang and his team treated 12 newborns suffering from a congenital cataract condition, CBS News stated. They found that they could remove the cataract and successfully stimulate the growth of a healthy eye lens.

Traditional cataract surgeries are considerably more invasive, which can be a major issue for such delicate patients. Because an infant's vision is still developing at an early age, intervening and removing any barriers to normal growth is critical for fighting long-term damage brought on by cataracts. Under current circumstances, a child may still experience opacity or blurred vision, and it may be difficult to use glasses or contacts to fix the problem, according to the source.

Until Zhang and other doctors can test this procedure on more individuals and see how they recover over long periods of time, it cannot be truly determined whether or not this new form of cataract treatment is truly a success. Regardless, Zhang told CBS News that he is hopeful and excited to expand his research to new patients and even new conditions.