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Chris Sieroty

Wynn to donate $25 million to support vision research

12 August 2013

LAS VEGAS -- Steve Wynn will donate $25 million to the University of Iowa to support its Institute for Vision Research.

The gift, which was announced Thursday during a meeting of the state board of regents meeting in Ames, will be used to accelerate progress toward cures for rare, inherited retinal diseases.

Wynn, 71, has retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that causes night blindness and weakness in peripheral vision. The donation will be paid over five years and will support the institute, which will be renamed to honor the billionaire casino executive.

“As a person who knows firsthand what it is like to lose vision from a rare inherited eye disease, I want to do everything I can to help others who are similarly affected keep the vision they have and eventually get back what they have lost,” said Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts Ltd.

Wynn said due to the pace of scientific progress over the last few years, he felt the “prospect of finding a cure is possible and probable in the short term and certain in the long term.”

The Institute for Vision Research is a leader in genetic testing for eye disease and is trying to develop gene and stem cell therapies that could restore vision. The institute, which has 30 faculty and 100 staff, has an annual $12 million budget.

University President Sally Mason announced the “inspirational” donation during a meeting of the Board of Regents.

Wynn, a University of Pennsylvania alum, has no prior ties to Iowa. But he and a longtime associate, Steve Dezii, who directs Wynn’s foundation, have long-supported eye research and are acquainted with many top scientists, including institute director Ed Stone.

The institute offers genetic testing worldwide, and has developed expertise in discovering and understanding mutations that cause retinitis pigmentosa and other diseases. The institute aims to use that knowledge to develop gene therapies, including transplanting corrected genes into eye tissue.

Researchers are working out how to restore vision for those with advanced disease by growing photoreceptor cells from adult stem cells that could be transplanted into their eyes. Stone said the institute has learned how to grow the cells, and that testing on mice has been encouraging. He said he believed such treatment could be available within a decade.

Wynn’s donation is double the institute’s annual $12 million budget. The institute, which has 30 faculty and 100 staff, is expected to double its laboratory space and hire 10 new faculty from among the brightest in the field, Stone said.

“We want to ... translate that money into effective treatments as fast as we can,” he said.

Dezii said he has visited the institute several times in the last two years, and that he and Wynn believe that a gift could accelerate breakthroughs. The donation will benefit those suffering from so-called orphan disorders, which are so rare that researchers typically do not focus on them, and will allow scientists to carry out multiple experiments at once rather than one after another.

“Time is our worst enemy,” Dezii said.