Diagnostics & Imaging Week National Editor

From the lab to zero gravity, back to the lab and on to the gear of astronauts in flight and perhaps on to Mars

From real life to the library, then to the slaughterhouse and the kitchen, on to the lab and finally, hopefully, into the physician's office.

Such is one of the circuitous pathways of med-tech research and development, especially in the heady environment of space exploration and the newest optical technologies, pursued and powered by a scientist's real-world observation.

Rafat Ansari, PhD, told Diagnostics & Imaging Week that there was no "aha!" moment that sparked his development of a new fiber optic system to detect the very earliest sign of cataract formation. This, in turn, could prompt action to stave off this leading cause of vision loss worldwide.

Ansari, senior scientist at NASA's John H. Glenn Research Center (Cleveland) and co-author of a study describing that development, says that the 12-year path to this discovery began with learning that his father was developing a cataract.

To learn as much as he could about cataracts, he headed to the library to research the physiology of the eye and focused on the key role that proteins play in these changes. In particular, he found studies indicating that the alteration of certain proteins signal changes in the eye.

He found that one in particular, known as alpha-crystallin, serves an important role in eyesight by acting as an anti-cataract agent.

Alpha-crystallin binds to other proteins when they become damaged, thus preventing them from bunching together to form a cataract. Research has shown that humans have a fixed amount of alpha-crystallin, so if the supply becomes depleted due, say, to radiation exposure, smoking or diabetes, the result may be cataract formation

Ansari said he next obtained the eyes of cows at a slaughterhouse (none being available at a local butcher shop), and then set up some basic lab experiments in the kitchen of his house, his then 19-year-old daughter at the time serving as de facto lab assistant, doing the dissecting.

Refrigerating the eyes, he studied the changes taking place, especially the cloudiness that occurred, serving to speed oxidative stress-like alterations and the impact on its key proteins.

Ansari said he saw an opportunity for analyzing these in much the same way as the experiments being done by NASA to study the impact of radiation on the growth of protein crystals in the zero-gravity environment of space.

He brought this to the attention of researchers at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the NIH, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), working with them to use a light laser technology, called dynamic light scattering (DLS), to measure these subtle protein changes in the eye, and the potential risk of cataract formation.

In the NEI-NASA clinical study reporting the results in the December 2008 Archives of Ophthalmology the researchers looked at 380 eyes of people, ages 7 to 86, who had lenses ranging from clear to severe cloudiness from cataract.

Using the DLS technology, the researchers found that as cloudiness increased, alpha-crystallin in the lenses decreased. The DLS device was used to shine a low-power laser light through the lenses to detect the light scattering from the alpha-crystallin.

Even when the lenses were still transparent, the alpha-crystallin amounts decreased as the participants' ages increased, thus finding pre-cataract changes that would be undetected by currently available imaging methods.

The researchers said that the potential for these changes, prefiguring and then moving on to cataract formation, in many cases can be headed off or reduced with a variety of lifestyle changes, such as decreasing sun exposure, quitting smoking, stopping certain medications and controlling diabetes.

Ansari told D&IW that the technique has the potential to look at even broader aspects of protein changes in human physiology as a "window into the whole body, every fluid, every tissue type" he said even, for instance, potentially to examine their relation to the development of Alzheimer's.

He said that the technology is now available for licensing by manufacturers, a process turned over to the commercialization arms of the agencies involved.

The optical application required reduction of the light concentration used in the lab and the development of a smaller device, Ansari said. And future adaptations might enable the system to be further downsized and integrated into applications for astronauts.

In another publication he reported that NASA is developing a head-mounted apparatus equipped with several diagnostic technologies to do optical analysis in space.

Overall, Ansari said, the intense radiation effects in space seem to speed the aging process.

This effect therefore must be monitored especially closely in long-term space flights or even life on other planets the radiation on Mars being 800 times that striking earthbound sun-bathers on a beach, Ansari noted.

"During a three year mission to Mars, astronauts will experience increased exposure to space radiation that can cause cataracts and other problems," he said. "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."

The John H. Glenn Research Center is one of NASA's 10 field centers, for developing cutting-edge technologies and advancing scientific research that addresses NASA's mission to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.

"This research is a prime example of two government agencies sharing scientific information for the benefit of the American people," said Paul Sieving, MD, PhD, director of the NEI. "At an individual level, this device could be used to study the effectiveness of anti-cataract therapies or the tendency of certain medications to cause cataract formation."