2010 Science, Technology and Environment

Rafat R. Ansari

Led breakthroughs that could revolutionize the care and prevention of cataracts, the leading cause of vision loss worldwide.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist Rafat Ansari applied lessons from experiments in space and his home kitchen laboratory to develop a safe, non-invasive laser device that could revolutionize the early detection of cataracts and change lives.

The ability of this pioneering device to detect cataract formation well ahead of other diagnostic tools could lessen the need of surgery for patients facing vision loss or impairment through early treatment with medications and lifestyle changes.

Cataracts are a clouding of the lens and the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in the United States and the world—affecting more than 22 million Americans aged 40 and older, according to Prevent Blindness America. Each year in the United States, about $6.8 billion is spent on direct medical costs for outpatient, inpatient and prescription drug services for cataracts.

Ansari’s low-power laser light technique is being used by NASA to examine the long-term impact of space travel on the vision problems of astronauts, and offers exciting possibilities to provide doctors with the ability to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and other serious diseases. The technique may also assist vision scientists looking at long-term lens changes due to aging, smoking, diabetes and LASIK surgery.

“Through Dr. Ansari’s innovative eye scanning equipment and procedure, the eye is now a window to the body, providing critical data that allows doctors to understand the eye’s health and eventually the health of the whole body by noninvasively capturing molecular changes indicative of disease,” said June Zakrajsek, acting chief of NASA’s bioscience and technology branch.

James Logan, a flight surgeon at NASA, said Ansari’s invention is “at least two to three orders of magnitude stronger” than all of the other technologies currently on the market. Other probes rely on visual imaging to determine whether cataracts are present while Ansari’s device measures protein changes in the eye to diagnose the onset of cataracts.

For Ansari, the inspiration for his discovery originated close to home.

“I was motivated personally by my father who was diagnosed with cataracts,” said Ansari. “Once I found out how serious this disease is and how it impacts the human body, I wanted to see what impact I could have. I realized that a small part of my work could make a difference in the lives of millions of people.”

Ansari, a senior scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, had been working for many years on a technique known as dynamic light scattering, which means that moving particles in a solution scatter light at different intensities. Ansari’s experiments were conducted in preparation for a zero gravity space environment, where particles such as proteins can grow bigger than on Earth without gravity holding them back.

Ansari closely read the literature on cataracts after his father’s diagnosis, and realized that they are caused by proteins in the lens that cluster abnormally, a process similar to what he was studying in his space experiments.

Lacking financial support, Ansari pursued his theories and research on his own. Much of his work was completed in the kitchen of his home and with the assistance of his then-teenage daughter, where they dissected clouded cow eyes and conducted tests with a hand-held dynamic light scattering device that was able to detect the protein in the lenses.

Ansari incorporated his laser technology into a portable probe and brought his findings to Manuel Datiles of the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health. The device was refined, tested in a human clinical trial and able to detect different levels of the protein in patients and correlate these data with development of cataracts. There are a few prototypes of the device now in existence and being used by eye specialists, but so far there has been no commercial development.

“Lesser men would have said that the writing was on the wall and would have moved on,” said Jerry Sebag, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Southern California. “Rafat remained undaunted. This is a guy who understood the importance of what could be done and persevered despite the challenges.”

Ansari’s discovery and his own personal journey that brought him to the space agency represent a classic American success story. “It was my childhood dream to work for this agency,” said Ansari. “Like many people of my generation, I was inspired by the moon landing and dreamed of working for NASA.”

Born in Pakistan, Ansari completed his graduate education in Canada and came to the United States in 1988. He worked in academia, and joined NASA in 2001 where he has been a leading innovator.

“Rafat is the ultimate scientist motivated by human need,” said Logan. “He is dedicated to bettering the human condition.”