Human age-related nuclear cataract is associated with progressive and widespread oxidation of proteins, particularly in the centre of the lens. The reasons for the onset of cataract and why this disease should take place only in the lenses of older individuals remain unclear. However, a common feature of nuclear cataract is the low concentration of reduced glutathione (GSH) in the centre of the lens. GSH is the principal lenticular antioxidant of the lens and it is synthesized and regenerated in the lens cortex. In this study we investigated the diffusion of glutathione within the human lens as a function of age. Normal human lenses were incubated in artificial aqueous humor containing [35S]cysteine and the label was metabolically incorporated into GSH. After 48-h incubation, lenses were sectioned and phosphorimaging was used to determine the distribution of 35S label. In young lenses, label appeared to diffuse uniformly throughout the whole lens. By contrast, in lenses over the age of 30, very little 35S had penetrated to the centre of the lens. A distinct zonal pattern of label distribution was noted in the older lenses after 48 h incubation, which had dimensions of approximately 7.2 mm (diameter) by 2.8 mm (axial). In some older lenses this pattern was noticeable even after 96-h incubation. Thus a barrier to the diffusion of GSH was observed in older normal lenses which was not present in younger lenses. Furthermore, the internal zone thus delineated has dimensions that coincide with those of the coloured and sclerotic zone present in nuclear cataract lenses. Since nuclear cataract is a disease of the elderly, and maintenance of GSH is known to be vital for lens clarity, we propose that the development of a barrier to the movement of GSH from its site of synthesis and regeneration in the cortex, into the nucleus in older normal lenses, may over time allow oxidative modification of protein to take place in the nucleus, resulting ultimately in nuclear cataract.
Copyright 1998 Academic Press.