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Vision Quest

HMS discoveries have helped shape our vision of the future.

1950 More than half a century ago, famed retinal surgeon Charles Schepens saw the need for a research organization dedicated to exploring new treatments for incurable eye disorders. Originally called the Retina Foundation, the HMS affiliate has since been renamed the Schepens Eye Research Institute for its founder. Its researchers have published nearly 5,000 scientific papers and books about health and eye disease.

1959 Glimpses into a cat’s eye shed light on the way nerve cells respond to light, motion, depth, color, and other visual stimuli. With their studies of the feline visual system, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, both researchers in the then-new HMS Department of Neurobiology, laid the foundation for the field of visual neurophysiology and greatly expanded knowledge of sensory processing. Their work was recognized with the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

1965 When Lloyd M. Aiello, now an HMS clinical professor of ophthalmology, began treating patients blinded by diabetic retinopathy, his waiting room was filled with seeing-eye dogs—many of which outlived their owners. Now, the vast majority of people with the disease retain their vision, thanks to Aiello’s pioneering work. With his late father-in-law, he pioneered pan-retinal coagulation, a treatment that uses a laser to halt the sight-stealing proliferation of blood vessels in people with diabetes.

1992 Thousands of patients have avoided blindness thanks to FDA approval of the Boston Keratoprosthesis, an artificial cornea developed by Claes Dohlman, former chief of ophthalmology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. His invention is used in people with severely diseased corneas when transplants from human donors fail.

1994 Like father, like son: A third-generation ophthalmologist at Joslin Diabetes Center and HMS, Lloyd P. Aiello has spearheaded his own research into the roots of vision loss. His studies have shown that vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, plays a major role in the proliferation of blood vessels in eye diseases including diabetic retinopathy and agerelated macular degeneration.

2000 Age-related macular degeneration is still the leading cause of blindness in older adults, but its treatment has improved over the years, thanks in part to the efforts of Joan Miller ’84, chief of ophthalmology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Along with her colleague Evangelos Gragoudas, she pioneered the use of photodynamic therapy to damage abnormal blood vessels in the eye without harming the retina. This approach, which was approved in 2000 as the first treatment for age-related macular degeneration, has reduced vision loss in many patients.

2006 The rich legacy of angiogenesis pioneer Judah Folkman ’57 has not been limited to cancer treatment. Research by the late investigator and others at Children’s Hospital Boston led to the creation of the anti- VEGF drug ranibizumab for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration. The FDA approved the medication after data showed that it might not only slow vision loss but also restore sight in some patients.

2010 Once the stuff of science fiction, a bionic eye is closer than ever to becoming reality, courtesy of researchers at the Boston Retinal Implant Project—a joint effort of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founded by HMS Associate Professor of Ophthalmology Joseph Rizzo III. The device would require users to wear a small camera mounted to eyeglasses. The camera would transmit signals to a surgically implanted chip behind the retina, helping people with macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa regain some vision.

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