Eye Drops for Cataracts

A Future Alternative to Cataract Surgery?

Scientists in California are investigating a naturally occurring steroid called lanosterol that could be used one day to treat cataracts. It may be possible one day to use lanosterol in the form of a topical eye drop to reduce cataract development. Lanosterol eye drops could potentially be a safe, non-invasive, and less costly alternative to cataract surgery for patients who have moderate forms of cataracts.

Patient at eye doctor
zoranm / Getty Images

What Are Cataracts?

According to the World Health Organization, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness among people older than 55. Gradual cataract development occurs as a part of the normal aging process, and it is rare to find a complete absence of cataracts in older individuals.

A cataract is a clouding or loss of transparency in the eye's lens. The human lens is composed of crystalline proteins. These proteins act to keep the lens clear.

Cataracts can develop if the proteins become disrupted, clump together, and break down, which is common with advancing age. Cataracts affect vision and cause images to appear cloudy, fuzzy, or blurry. It's similar to looking through a foggy window.

For some people, cataracts can be more severe or may develop prematurely.

Risk factors and causes include:

Cataract Surgery

Cataracts are usually treated with cataract surgery. Cataract surgery involves extracting the cataract and inserting a new, clear lens implant in its place. The procedure is usually performed under local anesthesia on an outpatient basis, taking less than an hour in most cases. 

During cataract surgery, an ophthalmologist breaks up the cataract by ultrasound or laser and then removes the debris and inserts a new implant.

Recovery from cataract surgery normally takes around 8 weeks. During your recovery period, you will need to return to your surgeon for a series of follow-up visits. They will check your eyes to make sure you aren't developing an infection and make sure your eyes are healing properly 

Eyedrops for Cataract Treatment

Scientists discovered lanosterol’s cataract reducing ability by studying two children who had a genetic condition that caused cataracts at an early age. These children shared a genetic mutation that blocked lanosterol production. Interestingly, their parents lacked this mutation and never developed cataracts.

Scientists surmised that lanosterol functions to keep the human lens clear by stopping the breakdown and clumping of the normally clear proteins in the lens.

Research showed:

  • Studies on human lens tissue showed that when lanosterol was applied to the cells, lens proteins stopped clumping and transparency increased.
  • Rabbits that had cataracts were administered with lanosterol for six days. Results showed that 85% of the rabbits experienced a significant lessening of the severity of their cataracts.
  • Black Labrador Retrievers, Queensland Heelers, and Miniature Pinschers, all dogs with significant naturally occurring cataracts, responded in a similar fashion as the rabbits.

Lanosterol was able to significantly shrink the size of cataracts and improve lens transparency. Scientists caution that more research is needed before deeming the drops as a safe and effective treatment for cataracts in humans. It could be a very exciting discovery. Because cataracts will most likely affect almost all of us, we will probably hear more about lanosterol research and development.

Lanosterol is not an approved treatment for cataracts at this time and is still being studied in experimental settings.

A Word From VeryWell

Treating cataracts with eye drops instead of having cataract surgery might one day be a possibility in the future. Scientists are working to examine the possible risks and benefits of using lanosterol as a non-invasive alternative to cataract surgery. 

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Could eye drops be an alternative treatment to cataract surgery? American Optometric Association.

  2. World Health Organization. Blindness and vision impairment.

  3. Michael R, Bron AJ. The ageing lens and cataract: a model of normal and pathological ageingPhilos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2011;366(1568):1278–1292. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0300

  4. Moreau KL, King JA. Protein misfolding and aggregation in cataract disease and prospects for preventionTrends Mol Med. 2012;18(5):273–282. doi:10.1016/j.molmed.2012.03.005

  5. Gupta VB, Rajagopala M, Ravishankar B. Etiopathogenesis of cataract: an appraisalIndian J Ophthalmol. 2014;62(2):103–110. doi:10.4103/0301-4738.121141

  6. Office of the Surgeon General (US). Other Effects. The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General.

  7. Davis G. The Evolution of Cataract SurgeryMo Med. 2016;113(1):58–62. PMID: 27039493

  8. Kook D, Kampik A, Dexl AK, et al. Advances in lens implant technologyF1000 Med Rep. 2013;5:3. doi:10.3410/M5-3

  9. Song Z, Si N, Xiao W. A novel mutation in the CRYAA gene associated with congenital cataract and microphthalmia in a Chinese familyBMC Med Genet. 2018;19(1):190. doi:10.1186/s12881-018-0695-5

  10. Sanchez RF, Everson R, Hedley J, et al. Rabbits with naturally occurring cataracts referred for phacoemulsification and intraocular lens implantation: a preliminary study of 12 cases. Vet Ophthalmol. 2018;21(4):399-412. doi:10.1111/vop.12525

  11. Zhao L, Chen XJ, Zhu J, et al. Lanosterol reverses protein aggregation in cataracts. Nature. 2015;523(7562):607-11. doi:10.1038/nature14650

Additional Reading

By Troy Bedinghaus, OD
Troy L. Bedinghaus, OD, board-certified optometric physician, owns Lakewood Family Eye Care in Florida. He is an active member of the American Optometric Association.