Cataracts is the leading cause of blindness worldwide. The only option for those affected is surgery – an expensive and invasive procedure that’s unavailable to many in the developing world.

Eye drops that have partially reversed cataracts in recent lab tests could one day restore sight for millions of people around the world.

Cataracts, or cloudy lenses, arise when lens proteins called crystallins begin to twist into the wrong conformation and clump together. Crystallins are essential for the eye to focus and they have to be transparent so you can see through the lens.

But the body never replaces crystallins — the ones you are born with are the ones you have your whole life. Other proteins, called “chaperones” keep crystallins clear for decades. However, they can lose their effectiveness over time, leaving the crystallins to fold over on themselves, harden, and cloud the lens.

Armed with this knowledge, authors of the current study, published in Science, went on a hunt for drug compounds that could act as “pharmaceutical chaperones,” molecules that stick to and stabilize the natural state of a protein. Specifically, they wanted chemicals that could selectively hang on to the soluble form of crystallin proteins and thus prevent them from clumping together.

Scientists at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) identified a new chemical that rejuvenates crystallins. It effectively “melts” the folded crystallins, making them soluble within the lens, restoring their transparent qualities.

Starting with more than 2,400 different compounds, the researchers narrowed their research down to one — Compound 29.

When used three times a week, for five weeks, it partially reversed cataracts in elderly mice. It also worked in the lab on human cataracts that had been removed through surgery.

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Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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