Dry eyes can be a by-product of modern living. Drops offer temporary relief, but could a permanent solution be on the horizon?

Revolutionary new eye-drops, which mimic the make-up of your tears, could soon be used to end the misery and pain for millions of people in Britain who suffer from dry eyes.

Revolutionary new eye-drops, which mimic the make-up of your tears, could soon be used to end the misery and pain for millions of people in Britain who suffer from dry eyes.

Until now, sore eyes have commonly been treated with eye-baths and eye-drops, but these methods only alleviate the condition for a short period of time. Scientists hope that the new eye-drops, made from a protein found in real tears, could provide the first ever satisfactory cure for people with defective tear glands.

Tears are essential for the eye to function normally. The cornea has no blood supply and tears are needed to carry oxygen and nutrients to the tissue cells. Normally, eyes are covered with a thin invisible film of tears which form the lubricating oil on the eye surface. But problems occur when the glands fail to produce enough tears to keep the eyes lubricated, or the tears produced don't spread evenly across the eye, causing gaps which allow dryness.

Following extensive studies, researchers at Oxford University have found that a human protein called lipocalin, produced by the lachrymal gland (the tear gland) could be used to treat the condition.

Dr Scot Gouveia, a tear researcher at Oxford University, explains: "Our work is aimed at finding a component we can include in artificial tear preparations that will ease the symptoms of dry eyes regardless of the cause. Our research points to a type of protein present in tears as largely responsible for maintaining the stability of the tear film. For dry- eye sufferers, this is important as they have a tear film which is unstable and breaks up very quickly, causing exposed patches on the surface of the eye.

"Lipocalin as an active ingredient in eye-drops would be better at maintaining the eye surface for longer than the existing artificial tear preparations. From the patients I have spoken to, these eye-drops only give a few minutes relief. You need to keep putting them in every 10 minutes."

It is common for sufferers to feel as if they have grit or sand trapped in their eyes. Their eyes may become sore, itchy, red or start burning. Because having dry eyes is related to the quality of the tears, excessive and sometimes sticky tears may be produced. In extreme cases, the eyelids will stick together and become difficult to separate causing soreness and, at very worst, scarring.

There are many different causes of dry eyes, the most common of which is old age. As we get older, we produce fewer tears, and evaporation increases. Other common causes include exposure to sun, wind, dry air, dust, pollen, smoke, wearing contact lenses, reading, using computers, and certain medications. Also, specific diseases and disorders such as Sjogren's syndrome, an immune-system disorder, or conjunctivitis may cause dry eyes. This condition can be heightened by hormonal changes, making women rather more susceptible than men.

Although it is difficult to quantify the exact number of sufferers, research indicates that more than eight million elderly people in Britain suffer from dry eyes. Ted Arbuthnot, an optometrist, suggests an increase in dry eyes has been caused by modern living. He estimates a rise of 20 per cent in the past 20 years: "We have seen increasing levels of dry eye in recent years. There are a number of fairly obvious things that are different from 40 years ago. One of them is connected to the car. Years ago, you had to wind the window down to make hand signals. Now you have a sealed box with heating and air-conditioning that creates a drying atmosphere.

"The same can be said of houses and offices with double glazing. You used to have drafts which would bring in some fresh air, now these are all sealed off. We live in sealed environments where the atmosphere is artificial. This is especially the case in planes."

The researchers believe that the protein-based eye-drop could work to bind the lipids present in tears and repair the tear film in between blinks. The protein would have a stabilising effect on the break-up time of the tear film and would lower the surface tension, making the film more likely to remain intact. The lipocalin protein has been patented for use in eye-drops by Oxford University, and researchers are negotiating with pharmaceutical companies over the future of the drops. However, it is unlikely we will see any further developments for another couple of years.

"There's still a lot of work to be done because the protein has to be used in the human form to avoid allergic reactions," says Dr Gouveia. "We must find ways of producing quantities of the protein."

Until then, dry-eye sufferers will have to make do with the methods already available. Mr Arbuthnot suggests simple solutions such as having plants or water features in your home or office, and putting a bowl of water by radiators to reduce drying effects. He said: "You can't really cure these problems, they need to be managed. Anything you can do to keep your environment moist will help. But usually, dry eyes can be helped with eye-drops."

He also suggests wearing goggles for swimming and getting lots of fresh air. So, if nothing else, it's a good excuse for taking all those extended screen breaks.

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