How our vision dims: Chemists crack the code of cataract creation

December 05, 2013

Irvine, Calif., Dec. 5, 2013 - Groundbreaking new findings by UC Irvine and German chemists about how cataracts form could be used to help prevent the world's leading cause of blindness, which currently affects nearly 20 million people worldwide.

"That's the dream, and this is a big step," said Rachel Martin, UC Irvine associate professor of chemistry and co-author of a paper featured on the December cover of the journal Structure. "Understanding the molecular mechanism of what goes wrong in the eye that leads to a cataract could lead to the development of better treatment options, including more sophisticated artificial lenses and drugs."

It has long been known that human eyes have a powerful ability to focus because of three kinds of crystallin proteins in their lenses, maintaining transparency via a delicate balance of both repelling and attracting light. Two types of crystallin are structural, but the third - dubbed a "chaperone" - keeps the others from clumping into cataracts if they're modified by genetic mutation, ultraviolet light or chemical damage.

The UC Irvine team painstakingly explored and identified the structures of the normal proteins and a genetic mutation known to cause cataracts in young children. They found that the chaperone proteins bind far more strongly to the mutated proteins in an effort to keep the lens clear. One major problem: Every human eye contains a finite number of the helpful proteins. Once they're used up, the researchers learned, weakened ones quickly begin to aggregate and form blinding cataracts.

Now that this mechanism has been mapped at the molecular level, the team is hopeful that organic chemists can create sight-saving treatments to prevent such aggregation.

While people with adequate medical care can have corrective surgery for cataracts, the World Health Organization has found that millions suffer major vision loss because they do not have access to laser surgery or other options. By 2019, the number of people older than 50 with impaired sight is expected to grow even higher, particularly in China, India, Southeast Asia and Eastern Mediterranean nations.
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Martin's co-authors are Carolyn Kingsley, William Brubaker and Amanda Brindley of UC Irvine and Stefan Markovic, Anne Diehl and Hartmut Oschkinat of Berlin's Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie. Funding was provided by National Institutes of Health grant 1R01EY021514 and a Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft grant.

About the University of California, Irvine: Located in coastal Orange County, near a thriving employment hub in one of the nation's safest cities, UC Irvine was founded in 1965. One of only 62 members of the Association of American Universities, it's ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UC Irvine has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It's Orange County's second-largest employer, contributing $4.3 billion annually to the local economy.

Media access: UC Irvine maintains an online directory of faculty available as experts to the media at today.uci.edu/resources/experts.php. Radio programs/stations may, for a fee, use an on-campus ISDN line to interview UC Irvine faculty and experts, subject to availability and university approval. For more UC Irvine news, visit news.uci.edu. Additional resources for journalists may be found at communications.uci.edu/for-journalists.

Contact:

Janet Wilson
949-824-3969
janethw@uci.edu

NOTE TO EDITORS: Photo available at: http://news.uci.edu/press-releases/how-our-vision-dims-chemists-crack-the-code-of-cataract-creation/

University of California - Irvine

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