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Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB)

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Preserving good vision is an important part of healthy aging, but as the Baby Boomers age, more than six million older Americans are diagnosed each year with a serious visual affliction. Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB) has pursued a mission of eradicating the diseases that threaten healthy vision for more than fifty years. Today RPB is the leading nonprofit source of research grants targeting the elimination of all blinding conditions and the restoration of sight, supporting more than 50 leading scientific institutions and hundreds of vision scientists.

A Legacy of Touching Lives by Protecting Sight

Ask RPB president, Brian Hofland, and he’ll tell you nearly every major development in treating all diseases of the eye in the past fifty years is connected to RPB support. Even if you don’t know their name, you’ll recognize some of the scientific work and advances RPB has supported:

  • The basic research on macular degeneration that led to the development of intravitreally-delivered drugs (anti-VEGF) that are injected into the eye to reduce the growth of leaky blood vessels;
  • Refinements to the intraocular lenses used in cataract surgery;
  • Development of the laser used in eye surgeries, including surgeries to treat diabetic retinopathy;
  • Research on glaucoma and the ongoing development of all topical and surgical treatments for glaucoma, and
  • Research into treatments for dry eye, which worsens with age and can significantly diminish quality of life.

RPB’s work in the aging sphere has included numerous grants to researchers examining the impact of vision loss on older people and caregivers, and has led to recommendations such as additional tests for loss of vision field and other vision problems to help determine when individuals should stop driving; the connection between vision loss and depression; and the value of nutrition and exercise in reducing disease-related vision loss.

Early days at RPB

RPB was founded in 1960 when Dr. Jules Stein and a few associates recognized there was no single major organization dedicated to research to eradicate the many diseases that cause blindness. In 1961, RPB launched a unique laboratory construction program that was so successful that it led to the coast-to-coast development of modern eye institutes serving millions of Americans across the United States. A few years later, RPB initiated and spearheaded the movement that created the National Eye Institute (NEI) within the National Institutes of Health.

RPB has also played a key role in building the field of vision research and developing strong academic departments of ophthalmology. One of its key endowments is the Jules and Doris Stein Professorship, awarded to scientists conducting clinically relevant basic research within a department of ophthalmology. Recently an RPB Stein Professor identified a compound that could interrupt the chain of events that cause damage to the retina in diabetic retinopathy. Another Stein Professor is looking into the use of statins to prevent or slow the progression of age related macular degeneration. These unrestricted funds allow researchers to purchase equipment, acquire statistical support, and hire new faculty to support the research projects.

Other exciting developments on the horizon: “We are close to being able to grow light sensitive cells from a patient’s own skin cells, and use them to replace cells damaged by retinal degenerative diseases,” Hofland reports.

Looking ahead, building partnerships

The spirit of collaboration is one of the founding principles of RPB. “The major sight-stealing eye disorders (cataract, age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy) get worse with age,” says Matthew Levine, RPB Director of Communications and Marketing, noting that 50 million Americans will have sight issues by 2020. “RPB serves as a catalyst for the vision-saving research that stands to benefit the aging community.”

Brian Hofland, who became president of RPB in early 2013, agrees, and brings a longstanding commitment to creating positive and lasting change for significant numbers of older people, including his service as the founding chairman of GIA.

“This is an exciting time for RPB, with a new president and some new board members,” Hofland says. “We are evaluating our strategic focus and would like to be more connected to a variety of stakeholders and funders in the vision field.”  Presently in the works are collaborations with the EyeSight Foundation, one of GIA’s newest members, and Johns Hopkins University.

Hofland also sees a connection to GIA’s current work supporting the development of more age-friendly communities. “How can we build age-friendly communities without making them accessible to those with sight impairments? It is to the benefit of philanthropists that we work together to support programs for our increasingly vast aging population.”

RPB is interested in leveraging its funding through the development of funding partnerships with other foundations and GIA is the portal for building such opportunities. “Vision loss has such a broad impact on the aging community that it’s almost impossible to develop aging programs without considering the impact upon the vision impaired,” Hofland says.

“It’s good to have colleagues in the field of philanthropy and share common interests and issues. GIA has always been such a warm and collegial network and we welcome being part of it.”


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