Make a circle with your thumb and pointer finger, and hold it to your eye. Now make the circle smaller, and smaller still, until only a narrow hole remains.
That is how Leo Hauser sees out of his left eye. His right eye has only light and dark perception.
“Over the last 15 years, my eye sight has deteriorated greatly,” said Hauser, 62, of Scottsdale, Ariz. “But I’m more than hopeful they will come up with something to restore it.”
Hauser credits his optimism to the University of Iowa and the work being done in what today will be dedicated as the UI Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research. Wynn, a Las Vegas businessman with a personal history of vision impairment, enabled the UI to bring its vision research centers under one institutional umbrella with a $25 million gift in August.
Hauser, who serves on the UI vision institute’s board, said the massive gift will enable research to prevent and cure blinding eye disease for people around the globe.
“I believe the work that is being done there is going to offer vision to people who have been living in darkness for years,” Hauser said. “It’s earth shattering and mind boggling. It’s that once in a lifetime break through, and I’m very lucky to be associated with it.”
When Hauser first learned that he would lose his sight, it was 1998 and he was 48. He was living in New Jersey, working in St. Louis and had started running into things. The first doctor he saw said, “We don’t know much about it, but you’re going to go blind.”
That wasn’t acceptable to Hauser, who went looking for a second opinion. He landed upon the UI vision research centers and made an appointment in Iowa City. The UI doctor’s assessment during that visit changed Hauser’s life.
“He said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘Go home and have a bottle of champagne. You’re going to have vision for years to come, and we’re going to find the cure. We are going to beat this thing.’” Hauser said. “That message was such a different message from, ‘Go home and go blind.’”
Researchers have not yet landed on a cure for Hauser’s condition, but Wynn’s gift – among the six largest in UI history – has him more than hopeful they will.
“I’m convinced that within the next three years, my vision will be substantially improved,” Hauser said.
He said the type of vision-related research underway at the UI is unprecedented, and the pace at which it’s being done is unmatched.
“I could have gone anywhere … but after you’ve experienced what they offer in Iowa, you know you’re in the right place,” Hauser said.
‘Really exciting kinds of treatment’
What will officially become the UI Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research began in the 1980s as a lab working on eye disease. In the 1990s, the UI vision labs became known as the Center for Macular Degeneration, and a $10 million gift from the Carver family in 2006 gave it a new name.
Today, the Carver Family Center for Macular Degeneration and the UI’s center for glaucoma research are united within the Institute for Vision Research, said Edwin M. Stone, institute director.
“Wynn’s gift allowed that to happen,” Stone said.
The UI landed the donation after sharing its progress with Wynn, who runs numerous Las Vegas casinos and hotels and has lost vision due to a rare inherited eye disease.
Among the UI research underway, investigators are working on a gene replacement treatment aimed at slowing down or halting failing retinas, according to Stone. Researchers also are looking to cure more advanced eye disease involving patients who already have lost retina receptor cells.
That research involves the use of skin-derived adult stem cells.
“Over the last 15 to 20 years, science has been coming along in a way that we are getting closer and closer to really exciting kinds of treatment,” Stone said.
Since Stone started seeing patients and analyzing cases in 1987, his UI lab has taken 60,000-some blood samples — about 40 percent of which came from patients seen at the clinic. The rest are from collaborators around the world.
“We work with them to help study their patients,” Stone said. “Here we are in this little college town in Iowa, and we are using this sort of technology and know-how to provide help for people all around the world.”
‘Not if, but when’
It was the UI’s innovation and progress that captured Wynn’s attention, said Steve Dezii, director of the Stephen A. Wynn Foundation.
“To put it bluntly, Dr. Stone and his staff were further along than anyone, not just in research but also in the strategy he was introducing,” Dezii said. “We felt research has reached a stage where clinical treatment is around the corner, and the only way to expedite this was through targeted funding.”
Dezii said Wynn is eager to back the UI institute, in part, because it will house the world’s only facility solely dedicated to finding cures for blindness.
“The impact is astonishing,” he said. “We can now say that the answer is not ‘if’ but ‘when.’”
Those words are music to Tracy Johns’ ears.
The 45-year-old Cedar Falls woman became one of Stone’s patients about 20 years ago. She has a generic form of cone-rod dystrophy, and now is legally blind. Her time as a UI patient so far hasn’t done much to improve her vision.
“There is no treatment or cure for my situation,” Johns said. “But they are making incredible strides in the lab, and now more than ever, I believe there will come a time in the not-so-distant future that I will get a call from Dr. Stone saying they have something that can help me.”
Johns said her life today is much different than she envisioned before her diagnosis. She stopped driving 20 years ago. She bought a house three blocks from work. She uses a cane in unfamiliar surroundings.
“Most days are OK,” she said. “And on the days that are not, I pick up the phone and call Dr. Stone and say, ‘Tell me what you’re doing. I need to know that.’”
Johns said she’s thrilled and grateful for the Wynn donation because her hope in the UI research keeps her going every day.
“For the first time, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It’s not a question now as to whether or not they can. The question now is when will it happen?”
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