Partnerships fuel NIH rise, propel UAB Ophthalmology into the future of vision research

To sustain its world-class research program, the Eyesight Foundation of Alabama, the International Retinal Research Foundation and UAB have made a generous $15 million philanthropic commitment to the department’s future.
Written by: Jessica Martindale
Media contact: Adam Pope

CEH NIHSandra Blackwood with IRRF, Christopher Girkin, M.D., Torrey DeKeyser with ESFA The University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences has made enormous strides in the past seven years. Now the department has additional funding from key agencies to continue its groundbreaking work and further enhance its world-class research program.

The Eyesight Foundation of Alabama, the International Retinal Research Foundation and UAB have each made a generous philanthropic commitment to the department’s future with a combined $15 million investment for the next five years.

These funds will be used to support translational science and continue the growth of the department’s nationally recognized efforts.

“This reinvestment in our vision research program will allow us to continue our mission to develop new therapies for blinding eye disease while providing world-class eye care,” said Christopher Girkin, M.D., chairman of the UAB Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. “These resources will support this thriving, collaborative group of world-class researchers, educators and clinicians as they operationalize this mission by training the next generation of scientists and clinicians, deliver outstanding clinical care to our patients, and continue to develop landmark discoveries in vision science.”

In 2012, UAB’s School of Medicine partnered with the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama and the International Retinal Research Foundation, as well as other charitable foundations and donors, to create the Vision of Excellence Initiative. The goal was to develop a world-class research program within the UAB Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, which is based in Callahan Eye Hospital. At the time, the department had 29 faculty members and was ranked 32nd in the country, based on annual funding from the National Institutes of Health according to Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research.

The department has far surpassed the goals of the Vision of Excellence. The faculty has grown to 51 in number, the clinical practice has doubled in size, and the research program has more than quintupled the size. Its NIH portfolio now ranks No. 5 in the country in annual NIH research, with more than $10.6 million in federal funding.

The funding growth has made UAB Ophthalmology an emergent vision research program in the country during the past five years. This rapid progress has been driven by the ingenuity of a talented faculty and fueled by the philanthropic vision of its supporters.

“It goes without saying that the EyeSight Foundation Board and staff are thrilled with the outcome of our previous investment with UAB in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences’ explosive research expansion,” said Torrey DeKeyser, ESFA executive director. “To go from No. 36 to No. 5 in the national rankings so rapidly is nothing short of phenomenal and brings us so much closer to curing blinding eye disease. Likewise, continuing this commitment for another five years is critical in helping support the School of Medicine’s brilliant vision scientists. Combined with the topnotch primary and surgical eye care provided by Callahan Eye Hospital and Clinics, the highly competitive Ophthalmology Residency Program, and the Level 1 Eye Emergency Trauma Department, their achievements help make Birmingham and UAB’s School of Medicine the destination for people in need of the best eye care available anywhere.”

Sandra Blackwood, executive director of IRRF, says members of the IRRF are excited and pleased to make this commitment in support of the department.

“The talented individuals who make up the department have proved their dedication to finding the causes and cures of blindness brought on by disease, and we are confident the efforts of this stellar team will continue to advance the science of ophthalmology in a way that is expected of a top-10-ranked program.”