Moving Closer to a Cure

In the fall of 2013, the University of Iowa celebrated the naming of the University of Iowa Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research in recognition of Wynn’s $25 million gift commitment to accelerate the eradication of heritable human blindness. But Wynn’s contributions to the millions of people affected by blinding eye diseases extend even beyond his transformational gift.

Sam Walker, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a student at Michigan State University who, like many college-bound teens, visited his optometrist for an examination before moving to campus in 2012. The routine visit revealed retinitis pigmentosa, a blinding eye disease that left Sam and his family at a loss for answers.

“My initial reaction to the diagnosis was, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’,” says Sam Walker. “I kept asking myself, ‘What’s the point? Why even bother to continue with school?’”

In the initial days following the diagnosis, Brian and Colleen Walker—Sam Walker’s parents—turned to the Internet, desperate for any help they could find. Among the results of their search was the name “Stephen A. Wynn,” the chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, Limited, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa decades ago. Brian Walker decided to email Wynn and share his family’s story, hoping for any advice Wynn could impart. Wynn’s reply was swift and direct—he told Brian Walker to contact Edwin Stone, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Iowa.

The Walkers made the trip to Iowa in search of a plan, and after meeting with Stone in person, they were confident they had found one. In fact, the Walkers felt so encouraged by their visit—and the institute—that they immediately made their own gift commitment to support vision research at Iowa, exemplifying the kind of philanthropy Brian Walker says will move UI scientists closer to a cure.

“After traveling out to Iowa and meeting everyone, I came back with a sort of driving need to do something,” says Brian Walker. “The scientific knowledge we need is there, but we realized early on that because these diseases are so rare, they’re going to have to be solved with the help of philanthropy and through people
with passion.”

Back home in Michigan, the Walkers have played their own role in a philanthropic solution. In the summer of 2013 the family hosted a golf tournament to raise funds for the UI Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research, and for the Grand Rapids, Michigan, chapter of the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The event, which included a dinner and silent auction, brought in more than $500,000 in contributions—another step toward what Wynn says is an imminent cure.

“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,” says Wynn. “I am thrilled by the pace of the scientific progress the past few years, and I feel that the prospect of finding a cure is possible and probable in the short term and certain in the long term.”

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