Scientists have discovered a gene that is thought to cause short-sightedness, potentially paving the way for curative treatments to put an end to one of the world"s most-common eye disorders. So, could this condemn glasses and contact lenses to the history books?
Myopia, the condition more commonly known as short-sightedness, which makes more distant objects appear blurred, frequently sets in during childhood and appears to be a growing problem in the UK, with almost one-third of British adults now affected by the disorder.
Scientists at King"s College London (KCL), however, have identified a gene that appears to cause myopia. In addition, the researchers behind the breakthrough are confident that treatments could soon be developed to halt the distorted eye growth that fuels the condition.
Dr Chris Hammond, who led the study, told BBC News that within the next ten years, short-sightedness could potentially be an issue resolved easily with eye drops. "We"ve known for many years that the most important risk factor to short-sightedness as you get older is family history," he added.
"If one parent is short sighted then you have a significantly increased risk of being short sighted, and if you have two short-sighted parents, then you have an even greater risk. But until now, we hadn"t identified any genes responsible for that susceptibility," Dr Hammond went on to explain.
During a 12-year investigation, which looked at more than 2,000 sets of twins, the KCL research team identified the RASGRF1 gene as one with variations shared by people suffering with myopia. A separate study conducted in the Netherlands, meanwhile, is thought to have uncovered a second gene also affecting the likelihood of people having the condition.
Dr Hammond suggested it was possible that more than one gene could govern short sight. "It"s like being dealt a hand of cards and having lots of high cards which decide you will be short sighted, or low cards which mean not at all, or cards from the middle which mean you may or may not be," he explained.
"So it"s not THE myopic gene we"ve found but it"s certainly an important step on the path to understanding how the eye does become short sighted," Dr Hammond added.
It has been known for some time that short sight emerges when the affected eyeball grows too large, leading to failure in properly focussing light. Studies have found that the majority of children are actually born long sighted, but the eye should continue growing until it reaches the ideal size. In people developing myopia, the eyeball simply does not stop growing.
Dr Hammond suggested that, in the future, tablets or eye drops given to children and young people could potentially block the genetic pathways sending the brain signals which make the eyes grow. He stressed, however, that significant testing would need to be conducted before such treatments could be implemented. as the possible side-effects are as yet unknown.
While the disorder is typically governed by genetics, Dr Hammond claimed that myopia is far more likely to be triggered by modern lifestyles, as people spend more time indoors and looking at computer screens.
"Lack of outdoor activity is a risk, as well as lots of close work and being in an urbanised society. So there are general susceptibilities but a number of environmental triggers. So if we had always been outside, looking into the distance, then very few of us would be short-sighted but we live in a more myopic environment these days," he explained.
Dr Hammond continued: "We know that, for example, it"s linked to the number of years of education and an urban, educated, society breeds short-sightedness, which has reached epidemic proportions in the Far East."
The scientist explained that, in Singapore, approximately 80 per cent of adults are affected by myopia, which is thought to be a result of the country"s intensive education system. New treatments could potentially override these triggers in the future, he suggested, adding, however, that such developments would be unlikely to spell the end of spectacles and contact lenses.
"I think that certainly the number of people needing glasses could be significantly reduced, yes. But I think there will be some people that have rarer genes that have a big effect and they will still be short sighted.
"So to say we will eliminate glasses may be overstating it. We"re never going to stop myopia in everyone, but we hope to have some impact on the majority," he concluded.
by Alexa Kaczka