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Eye Institute receives $10 million gift for vision research efforts

Jul. 25, 2019, 9:07 AM


by Jessica Pasley

The Vanderbilt Eye Institute (VEI) has received a $10 million gift — the Institute’s largest to date — that will fund regenerative visual neuroscience research to develop transformative therapies for eye diseases.

While the donor family wants to remain anonymous, the impact of the gift will be widely recognizable.

“Our family motto is helping people who help others,” said a member of the donor family. “There is a lot of activity around regenerative medicine and the amount of excitement surrounding collaborative efforts to understand and ultimately cure blinding eye diseases. The number of people who can be helped by the work of the researchers at VEI is countless.

“What started as a single relationship with one physician years ago developed into a connection with a growing team of experts and researchers all dedicated to eliminating blindness. What really attracted me is the fact that VEI puts people first — it was obvious that their faculty is considered their biggest asset. We recognized the drive and focus on innovative work they are trained to do and didn’t want them spending a lot of time looking for funds to support pioneering efforts.”

VEI’s vision research program has grown to be one of the top four in the nation. Despite its growing success, Paul Sternberg Jr., MD, G.W. Hale Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Vanderbilt and chair of the department, points to the work teams of scientists are involved in to develop transformative new therapies for eye diseases.

“This is an amazing gift that will provide extraordinary funding for VEI’s discovery initiatives,” he said. “By directing the support toward our nationally recognized regenerative visual neuroscience program, I am confident that it will drive new treatments in the foreseeable future.

“In an era when it is becoming increasingly challenging to run and support academic programs, this level of support is incredible and will make a tangible difference in the lives of patients and their families.”

The $10 million gift will go a long way to support bench-to-bedside research, an area in which Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been a longtime leader.

“On behalf of the Medical Center, I want to express my appreciation to the donor family for this incredibly generous gift. The faculty of the VEI are making exciting discoveries every day, and these funds will help advance new treatments for some of the most prevalent and complex eye diseases we face,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Through the gift, seven labs within VEI will be targeted for financial support. The first to be recognized will be the lab of David Calkins, PhD, vice chair and director of Research at the VEI.

Calkins’ lab focuses on the mechanisms of neurodegeneration in glaucoma, the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide.

Glaucoma blinds through the gradual loss of retinal ganglion cell neurons and their axons, which comprise the optic nerve. The loss of these neurons affects a major portion of the brain, which receives signals from the retina.

Insight into the early molecular cascades involved in the degenerative process hopefully will lend insight into the identification of novel therapeutic targets.

“We have identified several promising avenues ranging from neuro protection to gene therapy to neuro-replacement therapies for diseases of the retina and optic nerve,” said Calkins, the Denis O’Day Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Vision Research Center. “We see opportunities not only to develop new science, but to potentially attract and recruit new scientists committed to developing new therapies.

“As we strive to fulfill the promise of new innovative therapies, this gift will have lasting impact on the lives of our patients and their families in the years to come.”

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