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Dr. Rafat Ansari and NASA's Research on Cataracts
Narrator: Every year about 400,000 Americans are diagnosed with cataracts. They are the leading cause of blindness worldwide and the most common cause of vision loss in the United States. Today, the only cure is surgery. But thanks to a NASA scientist, other treatments may be on the way. Dr. Rafat Ansari began designing a new method to diagnose cataracts 14 years ago when his own family was affected by the disease.
Dr. Ansari: My father developed cataracts, a really, really personal story, and I did not know what a cataract is. So I tried to go to some doctors offices and found out what a cataract is and they told me that this is a cloudiness of the lens. I asked them if there was a treatment for it and they said no there is no treatment for it and when I grow old I will get it myself and the only treatment is surgery.
Narrator: Ansari didn't like what he was hearing so he decided to find out more about the disease that caused his father and millions of other Americans to have surgery every year.
Dr. Ansari: So I spent, just out of curiosity, one weekend at the library at Case Western Reserve University in town at the medical library and went through some literature to find out what exactly it is and I learned that there are three different proteins in the lens of the eye. And those proteins are called alpha, beta and gamma crystallins.
Dr. Ansari: In a normal lens of the human eye, the protein crystallins are the size of few nanometers and as we age or there are any other problems in the human body then these proteins would, or if we are subject to the radiation exposure as the astronauts do then these proteins agglomerate and form bigger sizes. If the size becomes so big, that it starts to obstruct the light which is falling on the retina with which we can see at that point in time the cataract is being formed.
Narrator: It just so happened that Ansari was studying the behavior of proteins in experiments on the International Space Station. As a scientist at NASA's Glenn Research Center he used a laser technique called Dynamic Light Scattering Technology to examine tiny protein molecules suspended in liquid.
Dr. Ansari: Dynamic Light Scattering means looking at the motion of something whether it has been suspended in air or suspended in a fluid. So if you are talking about a liquid the way the scientist would like to use this is that they would pass a light beam through a fluid. If this fluid contains a plain simple water the water molecules are so small compared to the wave length of light that they would not scatter any light. But if the particle size starts to grow and it becomes comparable to the size of the wave length of the light, then it would scatter light. And if you collect that light it will give you lots of information.
Narrator: Could the same technology be used to detect proteins in the human eye? Ansari was determined to find out. So determined that he asked his teenage daughter for help and the two of them began an unusual experiment.
Dr. Ansari: We went to a local abattoir or the place where you can get the eyes and we got the cow eyes. Took the cow eyes to my house. We were not set up at that time here at NASA to do those kind of experiments but just out of curiosity got the eyes took it home and I have never done any dissections in my life. So I asked my daughter, and she was at that time in ninth grade. So I asked my daughter, I said could you please dissect this for me. I want to look at what a lens looks like in the eye. So she dissected the cow eye in the kitchen of our house. My wife obviously was complaining about what we are doing but she did it anyway. And then my wife asked well it's dinner time. Let's go have dinner. So I took the lens, put it in a glass jar filled with water, and put it in the fridge, just to save so it doesn't go bad.
Dr. Ansari: Came up after a couple of hours, opened the fridge took this thing out and now what I see is that the clear lens, or lenses, become very opaque. And when they become opaque that means there is a cataract. But this was a great model for me to study. So very quickly I took that, put it in a beaker, put a thermometer in it and started to reduce the temperature and we used the device that we made for space experiments the Dynamic Light Scattering device and started to take the measurements from the lens and got great data.
Narrator: Ansari incorporated the technology into a portable probe that peers into the eye without touching it. The probe recently underwent clinical testing at the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Ansari: Today I am very pleased to report that we just finished a pretty good size clinical study on the validation of this device which, perhaps would lead now to find a medical cure for cataracts. And the reason I am saying this is because everyone at NIH and here at NASA, we are very excited about this because this device is about three orders of magnitude more sensitive than anything else out there right now which is being used for detecting cataracts at a very early stage.
Narrator: The probe is so effective that it can detect cataracts long before patients experience symptoms. This is allowing doctors to experiment with new drugs that might stop the disease dead in its tracks. But that's not all; the technology may lead to treatments for other diseases.
Dr. Ansari: We have heard that one of the adage there which says that the eye is the window to the soul. We are trying to change that. The eye is not only the window to the soul but the eye is also a window to the human body. Because every tissue type and every fluid type in the human eye represents every tissue type and the fluid type in the human body and the potential applications are amazing and very huge.
Dr. Ansari: So this and some related technologies that we developed here at NASA are now helping us to study not just the lens of the eye for the cataract but also to look at the disease of the brain which is Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease and we could study that through the lens of the eye as well because the beta-amyloid proteins, which are the culprits for Alzheimer's disease are somehow, I do not know the biochemistry of it, but somehow are expressed in the eye tissues as well.
Narrator: Ansari continues to study non-invasive methods for diagnosing diseases. Someday he hopes these methods will protect astronauts on future missions to Mars.
Dr. Ansari: The ultraviolet radiation on a regular day, on Mars, is about 800 times higher than a summer day here on Earth which means that if you are not protecting the astronauts on Mars, they are at very high risk for say skin cancer and for other things. As long as the eye health is concerned, we know that ultraviolet radiation is very bad for the eye as well. So for the space applications what we would like to really know is that before these astronauts develop any symptoms and with the development of new nanotechnology with the development of new pharmaceutical products coming in that NASA is working with some other people could that be utilized, that they are kind of sitting in the human body as you can call them some kind of robots, miniature robots, micro-robots, of other dimensions and as soon as we detect that something is happening they will go and treat that particular problem.
Narrator: With NASA preparing to send astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars, Ansari's probe could someday make human exploration of space a safer endeavor. Meanwhile it is giving new hope to millions here on Earth.
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