The Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh today announced a $3 million gift from Louis J. Fox, a Pennsylvania native and Pitt graduate. UPMC has pledged to match Mr. Fox’s donation to the Center.
Mr. Fox, a retired commodity merchant banker and trader, has embraced the Center’s mission to discover cures for blindness and vision impairment through a joint program of the UPMC Eye Center and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
“His generous gift will aid us in our efforts to pioneer comprehensive, patient-driven research and clinical therapies to treat people who through disease, accident, or injury have limited sight. To honor his generosity, the Center will now be known as the Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration,” said McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine
faculty member and Center executive director Maj. Gen. (retired) Gale Pollock, who, as former Deputy Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, recognized the need to find ways to restore lost vision.
More than 1 in 10 of all combat wounds during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been eye injuries and, in some cases, have left service members with impaired vision, Gen. Pollock noted. Unfortunately, there often is very little that can be done to restore sight after severe eye trauma. In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that about 120 million people worldwide are visually impaired due to cataracts, corneal scarring, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and other conditions.
Those figures hit home for Mr. Fox, who was diagnosed 10 years ago with central retinal vein occlusion (CRVO), an incurable condition caused by blood vessel obstruction. It rapidly left him with life-changing vision loss, first in his right eye and then in his left 3 years later. More than 100,000 Americans are estimated to have CRVO.
“Before my situation, I knew very little about vision loss,” said Mr. Fox, who is married with two grown children and currently resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and Taconic, Conn. “As an avid pilot and sailor, I had taken my good vision for granted. Losing it has been extremely difficult. I learned of the Center for Vision Restoration at UPMC soon after it was established in September 2008, and of the promising work being done here.”
“My heartfelt desire is that my contribution speeds the discovery and development of therapies that will make it possible for people to see again,” he added.
One such development was explained following the announcement of Mr. Fox’s gift. Cpl. Mike Jernigan (pictured), a medically retired Marine who lost both eyes after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004, demonstrated the use of BrainPort, an investigational device to be studied at the Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC and Pitt that aims to give back sight through non-visual neural pathways. The BrainPort vision device is an investigational non-surgical assistive visual prosthetic device that translates information from a digital video camera to your tongue, through gentle electrical stimulation.
The BrainPort vision system consists of a postage-stamp-size electrode array for the top surface of the tongue (the tongue array), a base unit, a digital video camera, and a hand-held controller for zoom and contrast inversion. Visual information is collected from the user-adjustable head-mounted camera (FOV range 3–90 degrees) and sent to the BrainPort base unit. The base unit translates the visual information into a stimulation pattern that is displayed on the tongue. The tactile image is created by presenting white pixels from the camera as strong stimulation, black pixels as no stimulation, and gray levels as medium levels of stimulation, with the ability to invert contrast when appropriate. Users often report the sensation as pictures that are painted on the tongue with Champagne bubbles.
With the current system (arrays containing 100 to 600+ electrodes), study participants have been able to recognize high-contrast objects, their location, movement, and some aspects of perspective and depth. Trained blind participants use information from the tongue display to augment understanding of the environment. Ongoing research with the BrainPort vision device demonstrates the great potential of tactile vision augmentation and scientists believe that these findings warrant further exploration. As a result, researchers are currently working toward the development of optimal tongue display hardware, software, usability, and overall device miniaturization.
The Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh is a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary research and clinical program dedicated to ocular regenerative medicine and improving quality of life for the vision-impaired. A joint program of the UPMC Eye Center and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Fox Center’s main focus is discovery and development of new cures for blindness and visual impairment, especially for those with problems affecting the retina, optic nerve, cornea, and lens. Through basic and clinical research, it will provide vision restoration through the augmentation of existing visual pathways or by providing vision through non-visual means.
Other speakers at the press conference included Alan Russell, Ph.D., director, McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and professor of surgery, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Joel S. Schuman, M.D., director, UPMC Eye Center and professor and chair, Department of Ophthalmology, Pitt School of Medicine; and Arthur S. Levine, M.D., senior vice chancellor, Pitt Schools of the Health Sciences and dean, Pitt School of Medicine.
Photograph: Cpl. Mike Jernigan, a retired U.S. Marine who lost both of his eyes after being wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004, demonstrates the BrainPort, a "vision through the tongue" device, at a news conference for the Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh. Cpl. Jernigan is wearing glasses with a small camera at the bridge, which is part of the BrainPort. –Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
UPMC Media Relations (06/18/09)
UPMC Media Relations (06/18/09)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette video (06/18/09)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (06/18/09)
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (06/18/09)
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (06/19/09)
WDUQ News (06/30/09)
Wicab, Inc.: BrainPort Vision Technology
Forbes: Louis J. Fox, JD
Bio: Maj. Gen. (retired) Gale Pollock
Bio: Dr. Alan Russell
Bio: Dr. Joel Schuman
Bio: Dr. Eric Lagasse
Bio: Dr. Andrew Lee
Bio: Dr. Peter Wearden
Bio: Dr. John Pollock