A widely used drug in China and several other countries may be the key to non-surgical cataract treatment, according to new research published in the January 3 issue of Inorganic Chemistry.

In China, eye drops containing pirenoxine (PRX) have been used in cataract patients for decades. Based only on anecdotal data, PRX has been regarded as a viable option in cataract prevention and treatment.

But in this new study, Tzu-Hua Wu, Ph.D., and associates tested PRX on cloudy solutions comprised of the same minerals found in the lens of cataract patients—crystallin combined with either calcium or selenite.

The cloudiness of the lens solution containing calcium was reduced by 38% and the cloudiness of the selenite solution was reduced by 11%. These findings suggest that PRX may be instrumental in fighting cataracts, the researchers say.

Not everyone is as optimistic, however.

“While I am not familiar with pirenoxine, I tend to look at these news clips with an eye toward suspicion,” says James L. Fanelli, O.D., of the Cape Fear Institute in North Carolina. Because cataract development comes with advanced age, he explains, its formation is inevitable. “Sure, there are some things one can do to reduce the risk of development and progression, but cataracts will still develop eventually.”

Likewise, Dr. Fanelli is skeptical about the method by which these findings were ascertained. “The testing is not done on the eye, and clinical extrapolation is tenuous at best. Until more rigorous study is in fact performed, we really cannot say too much about this chemical.”

Liao JH, Chen CS, Hu CC, et al. Ditopic complexation of selenite anions or calcium cations by pirenoxine: an implication for anti-cataractogenesis. Inorg Chem. 2011 Jan 3;50(1):365-77.