By Morton F. Goldberg, M.D.
Medical advances in my specialty of eye care are always needed, but we can’t always control how or when they occur. What we can influence is the time it takes such advances to travel from the lab bench to patients who are blind or dealing with other severe visual impairments.
I write this, based in part, on my own professional observations. A half-century ago, 52 years to be exact, I contributed a medical advance that has stood the test of time. I published a staging system for sickle cell retinopathy, a disease that can lead to irreversible vision loss if not properly diagnosed and treated; it disproportionately affects people of African descent. The staging system described different levels of severity in the retinas of individuals with sickle cell anemia, and permitted a better understanding of this eye disease.
Before Congress right now is an important piece of legislation that can help make a big difference in eye care. The Faster Treatments and Cures for Eye Diseases Act is a bipartisan bill that would significantly increase funding and speed the development of treatments and cures for all eye conditions.
Upon becoming law, the act would create Eye Bonds, which would provide funding to my outstanding research colleagues throughout the country. They are extremely eager to speed up the development of promising discoveries and treatments.
We need Eye Bonds, because great research coming out of the lab is often slowed down or doesn’t make it to patients at all. This is because pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms like to wait (and wait!) until later stages of development, before they move therapies into human clinical trials. So these possible solutions typically sit, without progress, waiting for funding to take them to the next level.
Karen Petrou, a noted Washington, D.C. financial analyst and a major thinker behind the Eye Bonds idea, says their structure is careful and responsible, because the federal treasury would be repaid first, before any private investor earns any income from Eye Bonds.
Her firm, Federal Financial Analytics Inc., found that America lags behind other countries in funding efforts to translate bench science to practical uses. The U.S. is currently devoting less than $750 million a year to so-called translational research efforts, and the majority of this funding does not go toward translational research for specific diseases, including those related to the eye, but instead goes toward research addressing general commonalities underlying broad areas of medicine.
Enthusiastic reaction to the idea has come from the parents of 12-year-old David McGlohon of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. David has been diagnosed with Bardet-Biedl syndrome, which doctors say will eventually affect his vision. His parents learned of the U.S. House bill and believe it will dramatically jump-start research for their son’s disease and for others. They and others are spreading the word to lawmakers.
Patients with sickle cell anemia retinopathy would also benefit, because studies to cure it would move far faster, as would those for other blinding retinal diseases, including prevalent, severe disorders such as diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.
Successful implementation of Eye Bonds would lead to new and markedly-expanded funding that would speed treatments and cures for many diseases and disabilities, including non-ocular ones having ocular complications, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
The technology has significantly advanced since my work of five decades ago; we now have exquisite imaging and other techniques to help us do a better job in eye care. There are many more solutions out there; let’s quickly get the support that scientists need to find these cures.
Dr. Goldberg is the Joseph Green Professor of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Medicine and director emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute.