1. Cataract is the single major cause of blindness worldwide; however, the reasons for the development of this condition remain unknown. It has been suggested that the essential amino acid tryptophan may be implicated in the aetiology but definitive evidence has been lacking.

2. The serum levels of tryptophan and seven of its metabolites have been measured in both cataract patients and control subjects, after administration of tryptophan, in order to determine the typical response profile and to discover whether differences could be found in tryptophan metabolism in the two groups.

3. Tryptophan, kynurenine, kynurenic acid, xanthurenic acid, 3-hydroxyanthranilic acid, 5-hydroxyanthranilic acid, 5-hydroxytryptophan and anthranilic acid were measured by HPLC with dual electrochemical and programmable wavelength fluorescence detection. Fasting cataract patients (n = 42) and control subjects (n = 37) were given an oral dose of l-tryptophan and sera were sampled at 0, 1, 2, 4 and 6 h.

4. Statistically significant differences in the distribution of data between the two groups were observed. The responses of kynurenine and 5-hydroxyanthranilic acid were higher in cataract patients, but those of kynurenic acid and total tryptophan were lower than in control subjects. No statistically significant differences in free tryptophan, anthranilic acid, 3-hydroxyanthranilic acid, xanthurenic acid or 5-hydroxytryptophan levels were noted.

5. We conclude that there is a major subgroup of age-related cataract patients with a dysfunction in the metabolism of tryptophan. This may be related to the onset of cataract. The mechanism remains to be established but may operate via the action of tryptophan metabolites, such as 5-hydroxyanthranilic acid, which become reactive towards protein upon oxidation.

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