Cataract is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in older people. A research team led by an Indian scientist has throwing light on the disease by showing that a small piece of a normal protein turns toxic during the aging process.
A cataract is caused due to deterioration in the highly ordered assembly of crystallin proteins in the eye lens. Usually, the ordered structure keeps lenses clear and able to efficiently transmit light.
However, crystallins slowly break down during aging, causing the lens to become opaque and scatter light instead. Besides age, other risk factors such as diabetes, ultraviolet radiation, or drugs like corticosteroids can also contribute to cataracts.
Like cataracts themselves, the exact mechanisms governing their formation are still a mystery, but K. Krishna Sharma and colleagues from the University of Missouri School of Medicine, Columbia found that tiny bits of crystallin contribute to this process to a great extent.
The team compared a range of human donor lenses and found that aged and cataract lenses accumulated about four times as many short (~10-20 amino acids) crystallin fragments compared to young lenses.
These fragments could readily bind full-length crystallins, which disrupted their natural shape and organization and caused them to become insoluble, the researchers discovered.
Ironically, these tiny fragments are a by-product of the eye's efforts to stay healthy; when a crystallin becomes damaged, other proteins chew it up to remove it; but occasionally the process is incomplete, leaving tiny pieces that can cause greater damage.
The study is published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.