Eye on the Future

A unique partnership could lead to breakthroughs in understanding vision loss
By Jane Longshore and Charles Buchanan
Illustration showing effects of glaucoma and macular degeneration
A unique partnership could lead to breakthroughs in understanding vision loss
By Jane Longshore and Charles Buchanan
Glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), already two of the leading causes of vision loss, are expected to become more common as America’s overall population ages. In fact, the prevalence of glaucoma could more than double by 2050; for AMD, it could happen in the next decade.

Despite these projections, UAB ophthalmology researchers foresee a bright future. Their investigations are shedding light on the development and progression of these devastating diseases, revealing potential new targets for prevention and treatment. They also have become pioneers in the young field of ocular biomechanics, which applies engineering principles to reveal the mechanisms behind
eye conditions.

Now, a $3.75-million endowment, one of the largest in UAB’s history, will enable the Department of Ophthalmology to recruit a world-class scientist to join its roster of international experts in the study of blinding diseases. The gift commitment to establish the Research to Prevent Blindness/Susan and Dowd Ritter Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology Research is the result of a unique, dynamic philanthropic collaboration. Two of the department’s key supporters, Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB)—the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to funding eye research—and the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama (ESFA) recognized that they could leverage their own philanthropic impact on research by turning to a private philanthropic partner for equal support. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when lifelong Birmingham residents Susan and Dowd Ritter pledged to provide the crucial third matching gift.

Critical Juncture

“This public and private partnership will allow UAB to bring top ophthalmology researchers to Birmingham to improve vision care for the entire world,” says Susan Ritter. “We’ve gone to the Department of Ophthalmology for family eye care for years, and all the doctors have been fabulous. It’s a stellar part of UAB, and as it grows, it will be a real jewel for the city.”

“RPB’s partnership with the Ritters and the EyeSight Foundation provides an opportunity at a critical juncture for expansion of the department’s research program,” says Christopher Girkin, M.D., department chair and holder of the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama Endowed Chair of Ophthalmology. “A $3.75-million endowed chair will enable us to recruit another stellar individual who will add even more depth and breadth to our already outstanding research faculty.”

The philanthropic partnership for UAB could become a model for others around the country, says RPB President Brian F. Hofland, Ph.D. “RPB is interested in supporting upward trajectory in vision science, so this concept of a highly leveraged endowed research chair with potential to attract a truly excellent national vision researcher to UAB was appealing to us,” he says. “UAB already was a respected recipient of one of RPB’s unrestricted grants supporting the country’s top departments of ophthalmology, and Dr. Girkin has developed a dynamic strategic plan with ambitions to aggressively raise its national ranking.”

ESFA also supports Girkin’s vision for the department’s scientific goals, says Torrey DeKeyser, the organization’s executive director. “Under his leadership, there is an emphasis on research that is generating excitement among the scientists, and this collaborative endowed chair will help boost and continue this momentum,” she says.