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Researchers identify key risk factor for cataracts

vitreous body and the risk for cataracts.

Beebe's research team previously demonstrated that genes expressed in the eye's lens tend to be those found in cells exposed to very low levels of oxygen. Several experiments convinced them the lens is normally a hypoxic -- or oxygen-deprived -- environment. Studies in Sweden also show that patients treated for long periods of time with high levels of oxygen tend to develop nuclear cataracts.

"Those findings helped us form the hypothesis that oxygen might somehow be toxic to the lens," Beebe says. "And there was another key observation: the high incidence of cataracts in patients who have retinal surgery. It's typical for retinal surgeons to remove the vitreous body in order to get better access to the retina. Within two years of retinal surgery and vitrectomy, patients develop cataracts at a rate approaching 100 percent."

Putting all of that together, Beebe and his colleagues wondered whether there might be an association between breakdown of the vitreous body -- a process known as vitreous liquefaction -- delivery of oxygen from the retina and the formation of nuclear cataracts. Could it be the vitreous body's job might be to keep oxygen in the retina from migrating forward and damaging the lens, which seems to thrive in an environment with very low oxygen?

To find out, members of Beebe's laboratory studied 171 human eyes from eye banks, looking for cataracts and measuring the amount of liquid compared to gel in the vitreous body.

"We found that nuclear cataracts were strongly correlated with high levels of vitreous liquefaction, independent of age," Beebe says. "In other words, if we subtracted out the effect of age on cataract formation, we still saw a very strong effect of vitreous liquefaction."

Beebe's hypothesis is that when the vitreous gel separates from the retina or begins to break down and liquefy, it allows fluid to flow over the surface of the oxygen-rich r
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Contact: Jim Dryden
jdryden@wustl.edu
314-286-0110
Washington University School of Medicine
7-Jan-2004


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