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Pitt Receives $6 Million for Vision Restoration Research

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Gloria Kreps
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PITTSBURGH – The University of Pittsburgh received a $6 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to support the development of a cortical vision research program in the Pitt School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology. The program will aim to understand how the eye and the brain work together to help us see the world, and use that knowledge to develop new ways to restore vision using various technologies such as brain computer interfaces and novel genetic technologies. 


“The RK Mellon Foundation’s investment is a resounding vote of confidence in a world-renowned talent—Dr. José-Alain Sahel—and his team’s groundbreaking efforts to preserve and restore the gift of sight for millions of people across the world,” says Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “I am deeply grateful for the Foundation’s support and excited to watch this next chapter in vision research and care unfold right here in Pittsburgh.” 


“As the world’s population continues to grow and age, the number of individuals with visual impairments is expected to triple by the year 2050, and Pittsburgh, with its aging population, will be highly affected by this epidemic of vision loss,” said José-Alain Sahel, M.D., director of the UPMC Vision Institute, and Eye and Ear Foundation chair of ophthalmology, Pitt School of Medicine. “We have established world class vision research and clinical care in Pittsburgh, and the cortical vision program will bring together the brightest minds to develop therapies that will directly benefit the people in our communities and around the world.”


Since 2016, Pitt and UPMC’s ophthalmology efforts have expanded significantly, adding 15 new clinical and research faculty. The vision research program also has established extensive collaborations with Carnegie Mellon University and an international partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and leading institutions such as the Institut de la Vision in Paris where Sahel serves as the director. 


In March, UPMC broke ground on UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation at UPMC Mercy, which when completed, will provide advanced specialty clinical care to treat complex ocular diseases and innovative programs for the visually impaired, and be the home of the vision research program at Pitt and UPMC. 


“This significant gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation supports our continued efforts to make Pittsburgh a leader in vision care, and we are excited to partner with Dr. Sahel to take us toward that goal,” said Lawton Snyder, CEO of the Eye and Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh.


The new cortical vision program will have three major areas of focus—understanding the biological mechanisms of vision from the eye to the brain, developing new vision restoration therapies using cutting-edge technologies such as brain computer interfaces and optogenetics to directly stimulate the brain, and implementing vision rehabilitation programs following these restorative therapies to enhance their benefit and improve quality of life. The grant will help support the recruitment of new faculty who will establish and run research laboratories in pursuit of these goals.