A common age related cause of blindness is being studied by researchers in the Cataract Group of the Agricultural and Life Sciences Division at Lincoln University, New Zealand. They are working on finding out a medical alternative to surgery.
Cataracts are the most common eye disease, particularly as people age. Without treatment people go blind. At present the only treatment is surgery. The aim of this large public and industry funded project is to find a treatment that will prevent cataracts developing.
The financial benefits of this research for New Zealand are potentially huge.
Team member Hannah Lee is studying the physical and chemical changes in the lens of the eye during cataract formation as one part of her PhD project.
“My work uses sheep that have a genetic tendency to develop cataracts as a model for the human cataract,” said Ms Lee. “I am using lenses from sheep as the first step in developing a treatment for cataracts in people. Working on a project such as this that will benefit the quality of life of such a large number of people is very satisfying for me.”
Recently Ms Lee returned from spending seven weeks in the USA at Oregon Health Sciences University learning new techniques from some of the top researchers in cataract research worldwide.
“I was very fortunate to be able to have this visit. It showed me that our research is up with the best in the world,” said Ms Lee.
Ms Lee’s research has involved two different approaches to the problem. After she developed the sheep lens culture model Ms Lee tested different compounds on their lenses’ ability to become opaque, as occurs in cataracts. She then used this system for testing other compounds that are known to inhibit the development of lens opacity.
Cataracts form when the main proteins in the lens, the crystallins, are broken down over a period of time. The crystallins are normally stacked precisely to permit the passage of light to the retina of the eye and allow focusing of images, in much the same way as a camera lens focuses light on film. When the crystallins become disorganised, light scatters and the opacity that forms is known as a cataract. Vision is lost once light is no longer able to pass through the lens.
Ms Lee’s work at Lincoln University is supervised by Dr Jim Morton and Professor Roy Bickerstaffe.
“Hannah’s research is an important part of the Foundation for Research Science and Technology funded cataract programme which involves Lincoln University, the University of Canterbury and Douglas Pharmaceuticals Limited,” said Dr Morton.
Ms Lee is supported by an Enterprise Scholarship jointly funded by Douglas Pharmaceuticals and the Foundation. Other team members who are working on other aspects of this complex project include Dr Lucinda Robertson and PhD students Matthew Muir and Gareth Wilson.
In this project, Ms Lee’s use of sheep lenses discarded from meat processing plants provided an alternative to using live animals for testing.