$20 Million Gift Supports a New Vision for Pittsburgh and Beyond

Sight + Sound, Spring 2021

The Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh received, through the Eye & Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh, a $20 million philanthropic investment from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation to advance research and patient care initiatives over the next five years.

This transformative and history-making charitable gift is part of a $25 million grant to the University of Pittsburgh to expand Pittsburgh’s burgeoning life sciences cluster. “Pittsburgh stands in a unique position to lead the world in life sciences, and this grant will help shape a corridor that will drive the post-pandemic economy and create breakthrough discoveries—to the benefit of the region’s residents—for decades to come,” said Hillman Foundation President David Roger.

The Hillman gift will invest in the programs and research priorities defined by José-Alain Sahel, MD Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology, and the leadership team, for treatments, therapies, and initiatives aimed at solving the problems posed by vision loss. “We are driven by helping patients,” Dr. Sahel said. “It starts with identifying conditions among patients, which flows into using research to find solutions, creating new therapies and devices, commercializing those advancements, and ultimately bringing them back to the patient by enabling access to everyone,” emphasizes Dr. Sahel.

This gift will support projects in research and patient-driven improvements in care, including:

  • Patient-Centered Research Initiative: Preserving and restoring sight for our patients is our top priority.  Every day, our entire team is working towards advancing research to discover new therapies with the ultimate goal of restoring vision. Under an established memorandum of understanding from the FDA, we will evaluate all new therapies, not just for their safety but also for their efficacy in return sight and functional mobility through treatment and rehabilitation.  Patient-Centered Research investment will provide startup funding and infrastructure for a virtual functional vision assessment laboratory (Street Lab) and an expanded focus on low vision.  Additionally, we will grow our team of experts in human cognitive science for vision loss and areas of phenomenology and qualitative research on the patient experience.
  • Healthy Vision Initiative: Our goal is to address the social determinants of health that cause unnecessary vision loss.  Various issues prevent conventional treatment for many Allegheny County residents and surrounding areas, including insurance coverage, financial burdens, and transportation barriers. These issues preclude individuals from maintaining optimal eyesight and prevent joining or re-entering the workforce, thus elongating the financial burden cycle. This is a multipronged and innovative new model for eye care, which brings screening and treatments into underserved communities in and around Pittsburgh. Most importantly, we will partner with the Graduate School of Public Health to ensure our models of care are epidemiologically viable, appropriate, and sustainable.
  • Challenge Grants: Paramount to our success and intended growth is the ability to provide Hillman challenge grants to our teams of researchers. Challenge grants are critical to driving innovation and competition to explore new research avenues and obtain initial data to leverage additional long-term funding and commercial investment. Investment in this area is vital to retain the talented faculty we attract to Pittsburgh and will not only improve the quality of research and innovation but inevitably help to grow the local economy by creating jobs and opportunities for cross-institutional collaboration and profit.
  • Vision Fellows and workers: Through a workforce development approach modeled after a successful program Dr. Sahel started in Paris, we will establish an in-house training course to recruit and train people from the underserved communities in Pittsburgh for entry-level research and clinical technician positions.  A training coordinator will be hired to work directly with established community partners to train students straight out of high schools and adults from uptown and the surrounding communities.
  • Breakthrough Research: Vision restoration therapy for corneal blindness, which started in Pittsburgh by the late Dr. James Funderburgh, has demonstrated success in patients. With Hillman’s support, this breakthrough research can move through the FDA regulatory processes with the goal of having the first clinical trials in the US take place in Pittsburgh.

This gift is the largest single donation ever made to the Eye & Ear Foundation and the Department of Ophthalmology. It will shine a light on our team of faculty and staff’s research prowess and clinical expertise. We are proud of our accomplishments thus far and look forward to building upon our successes towards a greater future for our patients facing vision loss.