A compact fiber-optic probe developed for the space program has become the first non-invasive early detection device for cataracts. Researchers from NASA and the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, collaborated to develop a simple, safe eye test for measuring a protein related to cataract formation. If subtle protein changes can be detected before a cataract develops, people may be able to reduce their cataract risk by making simple lifestyle changes.

The new device is based on a laser light technique called dynamic light scattering (DLS) that was initially developed to analyze the growth of protein crystals in a zero-gravity space environment. NASA’s Dr. Rafat R. Ansari, senior scientist at Glenn Research Center, brought the technology’s possible clinical applications to the attention of NEI vision researchers when he learned that his father’s cataracts were caused by changes in lens proteins.

The NASA/NEI probe being tested at the National Institutes of Health. (NASA)
“We have shown that this non-invasive technology that was developed for the space program can now be used to look at the early signs of protein damage due to oxidative stress, a key process involved in many medical conditions, including agerelated cataracts and diabetes, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons,” said Dr. Ansari. “By understanding the role of protein changes in cataract formation, we can use the lens not just to look at eye disease, but also as a window into the whole body.”

The DLS technique will assist vision scientists in looking at long-term lens changes due to aging, smoking, diabetes, and LASIK surgery. In addition, NASA researchers will continue to use the device to look at the impact of long-term space travel on the visual system.

“During a three-year mission to Mars, astronauts will experience increased exposure to space radiation that can cause cataracts and other problems,” Dr. Ansari explained. “In the absence of proper countermeasures, this may pose a risk for NASA. This technology could help us understand the mechanism for cataract formation so we can work to develop effective countermeasures to mitigate the risk and prevent it in astronauts.”

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