The Crystal Ball Says Cataracts

I think you should see this…while you still can. Admittedly, I’m being a little dramatic, but when it comes to cataracts, I’m not sure that people fully appreciate the far reach and severity of this debilitating eye disease.

Think it won’t happen to you? Think again.

This disease is extremely common and seems to be an inevitable part of the aging process. In fact, recent stats indicate that people aged 55-64, 65-74 and 75+ have incidence rates of 45, 75 and 88 percent respectively1. A bit scary right?

Well now that I have your attention, I won’t risk losing you with an in depth biology lesson. I will however provide a little background info so that you know what you’re in for and I encourage those eager to learn more about the anatomy of the eye, and existing cataract treatments, to check out our latest science dive on the Ingenuity Lab website.

Here’s the biology briefing:

The lens in your eye is home to diligent little proteins that play a significant role in your vision. These crystallin proteins are responsible for keeping the lens clear so that light may pass through and images can be focused on the retina. But as we age, these proteins can become damaged or modified by continued exposure to environmental factors like UV radiation. When this happens, the proteins may start to clump together forming fibrils and the lens can become cloudy or even opaque. This protein insolubility and aggregation is significant because it changes the refractive index of the lens and impairs vision.

The good news is that vision can be restored through surgery. The bad news unfortunately is that we have an aging population so we know that the incidence of cataracts will continue to increase. We also know that in many parts of the world, vision saving surgery is too costly or simply unavailable.

While developing nations are particularly vulnerable, Canadians are not immune. Our vision may be fading, but the message is clear. Our healthcare system is under immense pressure.

Last year in Alberta, more than 25,000 procedures were performed on patients with a cataract in their first eye and the average wait time for these surgeries hovered around 16 weeks2.

Now I don’t know about you, but I certainly can’t imagine fumbling around the lab with cloudy vision for four months. That’s why I’m so excited about research underway at Ingenuity Lab that may eliminate the need for surgery altogether.

We’ve partnered with top scientists in Alberta, U.S.A and Nepal and are gaining a better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms surrounding cataract aggregate formations, and how nanotechnology may be used to prevent or at least inhibit them. Together, we are focussing on target specific peptide screening techniques in the hopes that we will uncover a much-needed solution for communities around the world.

Our work aims to harness the specific binding abilities of peptides for recognition of crystallin protein fibrils3, as well as unique peptide characteristics that influence the stability of the fibrils depending on the binding region.4

The research is encouraging because it recognizes the potential of fibril specific peptides not only as drug delivery mediators but also as aggregation inhibitory molecules. Simply put, these peptides will be able to swiftly carry medication to the right place and help stop protein clumping on the lens.

Now, to get into the science a bit…

Using combinatorial biology approaches, our team is working to select peptides in both recombinant and ex vivo systems. Once the specific peptides are chosen, their effect on the aggregation process will be carefully followed by in-situ time sequenced atomic force microscopy visualizations. These peptides will then be screened for particular inhibitory properties, considered as a potential therapeutic agent and evaluated on lens tissue and animal models.

An added benefit to identifying peptides that bind to crystallin aggregates, is that their application extends beyond the treatment of cataracts. While the hope is that the peptides themselves will serve as a biologically based, mild, non-invasive treatment, these molecules could also selectively target affected areas of the lens for delivery of other therapies.

The ultimate vision of course is to develop an easily administered medication that stops the eye disease in its tracks. This will help to prolong eye health for global populations but there are other perks as well.

The beauty of nanotechnology is that research gains in one area often lead to much needed solutions for other pressing challenges. And this is especially true in medicine.

Every day, as we expand our understanding of the unique chemical, mechanical, electrical and magnetic properties of nanoscale materials, we open doors to revolutionary health breakthroughs. And nanomedicine advances like personalized drug delivery, improved healing times and increased therapeutic advantage are just a few things we can all look forward to as we continue to age ever so gracefully.


1 Bloemendal, H., et al. (2004) Ageing and vision: structure, stability and function of lens crystallins. Progress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology. 86, 407-485.
2 Alberta Government, waittimes.alberta.ca, accessed June 17, 2014
3 Funke SA, Bartnik D, Glueck JM, et al. Development of a Small D-Enantiomeric Alzheimer’s Amyloid-beta Binding Peptide Ligand for Future In Vivo Imaging
4 Gibert B, Simon S, Dimitrova V, et al. Peptide aptamers: tools to negatively or positively modulate HSPB1(27) function. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 2013; 368.