A laboratory to house world-leading, non-animal research into cataracts opens today at the University of East Anglia. The Pounds 170,000 lab is funded by the Humane Research Trust, which supports techniques to replace the use of animals in research. Scientists say that its research will be much more useful scientifically, as well satisfying moral concerns.
George Duncan, reader in biology, will supervise the new research. His work has attracted international interest because he has been studying human tissue from two eye banks. "Worldwide most cataract research is done on animal tissue," he said. "There is nobody at the moment routinely using human lens tissue for cataract research."
Switching to human tissue research could be justified on scientific grounds alone, said Dr Duncan, because human eyes may differ greatly from the eyes of other animals. With human eyes, for example, it is possible to study tissue aged between one and 80. Most cataracts start at around the age of 65, well past the age of death of most animal subjects.
The problem in studying human tissue has been obtaining funding to do the research and persuading people to follow their deceased relatives' wishes and send their eyes to an eye bank, he said. "In America, where everything is privatised, you could be paying $200 per donor," he said.
"At least we are now putting into the pool standard human data which other people can look at and compare with animal data."
His research so far has found a link between a lack of antioxidants and the development of cataracts. This basic science confirms population studies which have found a link between eating plenty of antioxidants - in broccoli for example and a reduced likelihood of developing cataracts.
The scientists have found that if certain chemicals attached to the lens membrane become oxidised they allow channels running through the membrane to open. Calcium can then pass through the membrane, where it activates an enzyme which chews up the proteins in the lens, says Dr Duncan. The lens becomes like a cracked piece of glass.