Scientists at UC San Diego Health announced Wednesday that they’ve developed a minimally invasive way of removing congenital cataracts from infants and regenerating their lenses by using stem cells already in their eyes.

Dr. Kang Zhang of UCSD School of Medicine. Photo via ucsdnews.ucsd.edu

The study, published online in the journal Nature, was conducted along with researchers in China and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

The technique was tested in animals, and then in a small trial with a dozen human patients, all of whom suffered fewer surgical complications and better visual function than those receiving the standard treatment, according to UCSD.

The scientists said congenital cataracts, a clouding of the lens at birth or soon after, are a major cause of blindness in children.

Current treatments result in the removal of most stem cells in the membrane of the lens. The technique created by the UCSD and Chinese scientists keep those stem cells and lens capsule intact.

“An ultimate goal of stem cell research is to turn on the regenerative potential of one’s own stem cells for tissue and organ repair and disease therapy,” said Dr. Kang Zhang, chief of ophthalmic genetics at the UCSD School of Medicine.

Zhang, founding director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine and co- director of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering at the Institute of Engineering in Medicine, said the stem cells form a new lens for the patient.

The 12 infants who went through the trial developed clear lenses within three months, according to the researchers.

Zhang said his team will now study whether the technique can be applied to patients who develop cataracts as they get older.

Age-related cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world, affecting more than 20 million Americans. More than 4 million surgeries are performed annually to replace the clouded lens with an artificial plastic version, according to UCSD.

Among other sources, funding for the study came from the National Basic Research Program of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Sun Yat-Sen University of Guangdong, China, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

— City News Service

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