British scientists report that they have discovered an array of genes for short-sightedness, that could in the future, lead to the production of drugs to stop children suffering from the condition. In a UK lead team, researchers identified 24 specific genes that cause myopia in adults.
This discovery could effectively spare people from the expense of paying for glasses, contact lenses or laser surgery. But more importantly, the discovery means that future generations would no longer be at risk of developing complications of short-sightedness that can lead to blindness in later life.
Short-sightedness, or myopia affects more than one in three Britons and can get worse as we age, as the muscles in our eyes weaken, and we spend more time in front of our computer screens and the TV.
Most people are born slightly long-sighted (where close objects appear blurred) because their eyes haven’t grown to their full length. The eye then grows to their normal length, which should lead to the resumption of normal vision. Generally, short-sightedness happens when the eye continues to grow and becomes too long from front to back. As a result, light rays don’t reach the retina at the back of the eye. They only focus in front of it. This means that objects in the distance seem blurred. Most cases of short-sightedness are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that disrupt the normal growth of the eye.
The first gene that causes short-sightedness was identified by British King’s College London researcher Professor Chris Hammond. Myopia is actually caused by the eyeball growing too much, and although the condition usually starts in childhood, it can lead to problems in adulthood, such as macular degeneration and other forms of blindness. Typically short-sightedness will run in families, and this means that genes must be involved for the condition to be passed onto future generations.
These new genes have been identified by a UK lead international team, who searched through genetic data, provided by around 45,000 people from around the world.
Professor Hammond said: ‘This study reveals for the first time a group of genes involved with myopia and that carriers of some of the genes have a ten-fold increased risk of developing the condition.’
Now that the specific genes have been identified, further research can now be applied as the scientists can work out what these particular genes do and how they make us short-sighted.
Professor Hammond, whose work has been published in the Nature Genetics Journal says: ‘Now we understand more about the genetic triggers for the condition, we can begin to explore other ways to prevent progression. It is an extremely exciting step forward which could potentially lead to better treatments or prevention in the future for millions around the world.’
Scientists do predict however, that although the discovery of these genes are an important breakthrough, any drugs linked to preventing the condition are likely to be about 15 years in the future, as rigourous testing and trials would need to be undertaken.
It is thought that the drugs would have to prevent the eyeball from overdeveloping, but not stop the overall development of a child’s general growth.
There are also some reports that suggest environment plays an important role in factors regarding short-sightedness, as children who spend a lot of time outdoors, tend to have better vision than those that sit in front of a TV or computer screen for hours.
Clara Eaglen, of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said: ‘Any new understanding of the cause of short-sightedness will help us get closer to finding treatments that will prevent the condition progressing.’