Bascom Palmer Eye Institute’s “Moon Shot” Whole Eye Transplant Research Initiative

Article Summary
  • Bascom Palmer Eye Institute researchers are using a $1 million gift to galvanize their work on whole eye transplants.
  • Dr. Eduardo Alfonso, Bascom Palmer’s director, equated the initiative to the “moon shot” program that catalyzed the U.S. moon landing.
  • Bascom Palmer’s Dr. David Tse has already designed a surgical technique to transplant and preserve the globe of the eye after it is removed from a donor’s blood supply.

A half-century after the hit TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man” forecast the creation of a bionic eye, the idea is one step closer today to becoming a reality.

Thanks to a $1 million donation from distinguished Florida philanthropist and humanitarian Lois Pope to the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, doctors and researchers are fast-forwarding their high-impact initiative to transplant the whole eye.

Lois Pope with Eduardo C. Alfonso, M.D.
Lois Pope with Bascom Palmer Director Eduardo Alfonso, M.D., outside the Lois Pope Center for Retinal and Macular Degeneration Research.

The eye is currently one of only four organs yet to be successfully transplanted. The others are the ear, spine and brain.

“My mother suffered terribly for many years from macular degeneration,” Mrs. Pope said. “Of course, she is not alone. There are 20 million people here in the U.S. with that disease. And when you combine that with the millions facing blindness and vision impairment from many other conditions, you can quickly understand how essential it is for this project to come to fruition. If my gift to Bascom Palmer can in a small way make that happen more quickly, then I will have done what I’ve always set out to do with all my philanthropic work, which is to help transform lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.”

A Legacy of Philanthropy

Mrs. Pope’s philanthropic legacy is marked by groundbreaking projects. She conceived and spearheaded the creation of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, the only permanent tribute to disabled American veterans. At the Miller School, the Lois Pope LIFE Center is pioneering research into neurological conditions like spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Her vision also brought to life a clinic at Tri-County Animal Rescue offering medical services for pets from low-income families. Through her efforts, the Palm Beach County Food Bank launched a program ensuring underserved children receive healthy meals outside of school. Additionally, she championed an American Humane initiative that rescues shelter dogs and trains them to be certified service dogs. The dogs are given to veterans grappling with the trauma of war.

Noting this latest gift and Mrs. Pope’s previous donations to create the Lois Pope Center for Retinal and Macular Degeneration Research and Lois’ Vision4Kids, Eduardo Alfonso, M.D., director of Bascom Palmer and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the Miller School, was effusive in his praise.

Female eye in profile view
Bascom Palmer’s Dr. David Tse has designed a surgical technique to transplant and preserve the globe of the eye after it is removed from a donor’s blood supply.

“Lois Pope is, pardon the pun, a true visionary. More than just being generous with her financial support of our Institute, she is generous with her time and energy,” he said. “Her philanthropy extends far beyond financial contributions. She invests her time and vigor into our endeavors. Her interest in the whole eye transplant initiative is a perfect case in point. She is not one to simply offer financial aid. She seeks a profound understanding of our goals and challenges. This active curiosity and commitment to our cause is both invigorating and invaluable. We are immensely thankful for her unwavering support.”

Whole Eye Transplant Moon Shot

Dr. Alfonso evoked President Kennedy’s “Moon Shot” speech, when the president said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Dr. Alfonso said the whole eye transplant project aims to provide blind patients with a seeing eye, perhaps by using a biological eye modified to make it functional for vision. The “bionic eye” will likely include an electronic chip, with gene therapy to prevent allograft rejection, stem cell therapy to replace degenerating eye tissue and electronic connections to the brain.

Felipe A. Medeiros, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair of research at Bascom Palmer, described the quest for a whole eye transplant as a formidable challenge that will galvanize the collective wisdom and dedication of the Bascom Palmer team. This collaborative venture will leverage the diverse expertise of the University of Miami’s College of Engineering, the Lois Pope LIFE Center, the Miami Transplant Institute and Miller School departments.

Dr. Medeiros said optic nerve regeneration and reconnection are far from the only challenges to a successful eye transplant. On the surgical side, the donor eye tissues must be removed and transported to the recipient. Microsurgery and oculoplastic procedures place the eye in the right position, reconnect the muscles and restore blood flow through the capillaries and veins. 

Thomas E. Johnson, M.D., professor of clinical ophthalmology at the Miller School, is confident in his team.

“Our oculoplastic surgery team is at the forefront of both clinical and fundamental research,” he said. “With our collective imagination, extensive experience and honed skills, we’re equipped to devise innovative solutions to even the most challenging and complex issues.”

Daniel Pelaez, Ph.D., research associate professor of ophthalmology at the Miller School and scientific director at the Dr. Nasser Ibrahim Al-Rashid Orbital Vision Research Center, spoke with optimism about the groundbreaking work.

“We have embarked on a journey that can provide many benefits to patients with different conditions,” he said. “It can lead to advances in many fields of medicine. It can shift the entire paradigm.”

The Foundation of Whole Eye Transplant

Dr. Pelaez elaborated on the scientific foundations underpinning their work, referencing the seminal research of Nobel Laureate Roger Sperry.

“In the 1960s, Sperry’s work with amphibians like frogs and salamanders revealed an innate biological capacity for regeneration,” Dr. Pelaez said. “Our challenge—and our opportunity—is to decode how these natural processes function and then translate them into therapeutic applications for humans.”

David T. Tse, M.D., professor of ophthalmology and Dr. Nasser Ibrahim Al-Rashid Chair in Ophthalmology at the Miller School, has designed a surgical technique to transplant and preserve the globe of the eye after it is removed from a donor’s blood supply. Prompt restoration of blood flow is crucial for tissue survival.

Organ rejection is another challenge, said Victor L. Perez, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at the Miller School.

“The eye’s immune privilege is a delicate balance that must be maintained to prevent rejection,” Dr. Perez said. “Our ongoing research into ocular immunology seeks to understand and control the immune response to transplants, aiming to develop new methods that will allow us to integrate donor tissue seamlessly into the recipient’s immune system.”

“I want Bascom Palmer to be the first eye center in the world to achieve the moon-shot goal,” Dr. Tse said. “Whole eye transplant is the final destination.”

Tags: Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, Dr. Daniel Pelaez, Dr. Eduardo Alfonso, Dr. Felipe Medeiros, Lois Pope, Lois Pope Center for Retinal and Macular Degeneration Research, miami translplant institute, whole eye transplant