Courtesy: National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health (NEI/NIH)
A new study offers an explanation for how years of chronic sunlight exposure can increase the risk of cataract, a clouding of the eye lens that typically occurs with aging. The study firms up a link between the sun’s damaging rays and a process called oxidative stress. It was funded in part by the National Eye Institute (NEI).
It’s well known that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun can cause skin damage. But many studies show that UV light can also increase the risk of cataract and other eye conditions.
Oxidative stress refers to harmful chemical reactions that can occur when our cells consume oxygen and other fuels to produce energy. It’s an unfortunate consequence of living, but it’s also considered a major contributor to normal aging and age-related diseases-including cataract formation in the lens.
The cells within the lens contain mostly water and proteins, and lack the organelles (literally “tiny organs”) typically found in other cells. This unusual make-up of lens cells renders the lens transparent, uniquely capable of transmitting light and focusing it on the retina at the back of the eye. When a cataract forms, the proteins inside lens cells show signs of oxidative damage, and they ultimately become clumped together, scattering light rather than transmitting it. So, the theory goes, oxidative stress (or something like it) is responsible for destroying the neatly ordered proteins inside the lens and producing a cataract.
The theory might sound simple, but there is a puzzling fact that doesn’t fit: The oldest cells in the lens are not only devoid of the organelles that keep most other cells alive and functioning, they also get little to no oxygen. So how can they suffer from oxidative stress?
The new study, led by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, suggests that UV light may provide an answer. The study shows that UV light can damage lens proteins in a distinct way (called glycation) that is typically seen in cataract and in cells damaged by oxidative stress. In other words, UV light can substitute for oxygen to trigger harmful oxidative reactions in the lens.
Prior studies have supported this theory. But the Case Western team has unveiled a detailed play-by-play of the chemical changes induced in the lens by UV light.
“UV light has long been suspected to have a role in cataract formation, but the mechanism has not been clear,” said Ram Nagaraj, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and a professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Case Western. “Our study shows how UV light could promote cataract development, and reiterates the importance of wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes the sun’s harmful rays,” Dr. Nagaraj said.
The current study was done in collaboration with the Iladevi Cataract and IOL Research Center in Ahmedabad, India. It was funded by NEI, Research to Prevent Blindness, and the Ohio Lions Eye Research Foundation.
Linetsky M, Raghavan CT et al. “UVA light-excited kynurenines oxidize ascorbate and modify lens proteins through the formation of advanced glycation end products: implications for human lens aging and cataract formation.” Journal of Biological Chemistry, May 2014.