A Bold Mission to End Blindness

Published in Wilmer - Fall 2021

One morning when he was in his junior year at Columbia University, Sanford “Sandy” Greenberg emerged from a deep sleep in a hospital bed, unable to see. The increasing cloudiness in his vision, at first thought to be conjunctivitis, had instead been glaucoma. A last-ditch surgery to save his sight had not gone well.

“When I woke up newly blinded, I promised God that I would do everything I could for the rest of my life to make sure that no one else would go blind,” Greenberg says today. “It was an insane, adolescent promise, but it stayed with me all this time.

In the spring of 2021 — almost 60 years to the day after Sandy Greenberg awoke in a Detroit hospital to total darkness — he and his wife Sue saw the establishment of The Sanford and Susan Greenberg Center to End Blindness at the Wilmer Eye Institute. The Greenberg Center’s mission is as bold as the name would suggest: to end blindness, “permanently, and for everyone,” says Greenberg.

Perseverance Pays Off

After losing his sight, Greenberg persevered, perhaps as few would or could. With early help from his college roommate (the soon-to-be-famous singer Art Garfunkel) reading him his textbooks aloud, Greenberg not only returned to Columbia and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, he went on to achieve an impressive string of academic accomplishments: a Ph.D. from Harvard, an M.B.A. from Columbia, a stint at Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar, and law school at Harvard.

Over the next four decades, Greenberg charted an equally impressive career. He invented a device to help vision-impaired people listen to recorded speech, started several companies to provide services for the blind and served as a White House Fellow in the Johnson Administration. He also chaired the federal government’s Rural Healthcare Corporation and was a member of the National Science Board. He was a trustee of The Johns Hopkins University from 1994 to 2011. He currently chairs the Board of Governors of the Wilmer Eye Institute.

“I consider being chairman of Wilmer’s Board of Governors one of the great privileges of my life and one of my most significant learning experiences,” he says. “Strategizing, particularly for the long term, has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience — especially working with Dr. Peter McDonnell and the members of the Board of Governors. This work is consistent with the promise I made to God in 1961 — that I would do everything I could to end blindness for everyone for evermore.”

Vision for the Future

Greenberg’s promise to end blindness was shaped by two seminal figures of American history: Jonas Salk and President John F. Kennedy. Greenberg credits a personal meeting with Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, as inspiration for the Center: Rather than obtaining funds for the purchase of iron lungs for victims during the polio epidemic, Salk realized that the focus should be on eliminating the disease. Salk, he says, encouraged him to focus on the big picture of ending blindness. “‘Just end it,’ he told me,” Greenberg recalls.

A second important influence, Greenberg says, was President John F. Kennedy, whose eyebrow-raising challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade came just months after Greenberg’s own oath to end blindness.

The Prize

“It wasn’t until 2012, however, that I began to feel that the science had begun to catch up with my ambitions to end blindness,” says Greenberg. He points to the advent of new technologies and techniques such as artificial retinas that interface with the brain allowing people to see again, novel nanoscale drugs, the gene editing tool CRISPR, and regenerative medicine. All have the potential to slow, restore or even cure vision loss in myriad ways — and Wilmer researchers are working on all of them.

It was in that year, 2012, that Greenberg and his wife announced to the Wilmer Board of Governors the launch of the End Blindness Campaign. In December 2020, they awarded the Greenberg Prize, bestowing $3 million to be shared by 13 leading researchers in ophthalmology from across the globe.

The Next Step

The Greenberg Center’s goal is to ultimately deploy an endowment of $100 million. The Greenbergs, their friends, and supporters of Wilmer have placed a down payment of energy and resources toward that considerable target and are leading a campaign to raise the balance from others who share with them a commitment to their objective.

“I’m proud to say we are well on our way to meeting our goal,” Greenberg adds.

In planning the Center, Greenberg wanted to inspire promising early-career researchers who have an abundance of high-risk, high-reward ideas but lack the funding to pursue those ideas.

The Greenberg Center expects to dedicate four Rising Professorships in the coming year, and many more will follow as the Center grows. These professorships are set aside for up-and-coming researchers — assistant professors whose work is focused on ending one or more causes of blindness — with seed funding for up to seven years each to get their careers and their potentially transformative research off to a flying start.

That sort of unrestricted support, coming at such a juncture in a young researcher’s career, is critical, says Peter J. McDonnell, M.D., director of the Wilmer Eye Institute. The scramble for funding is so competitive in fact, that the average age at which a scientist receives his or her all-important R01 initial grant from the National Institutes of Health is 44.

“If you’re a young researcher and you’re competing with established, often very famous senior people who have very large research teams, it’s very challenging,” McDonnell says. “Sandy and Sue’s efforts mean that these brilliant young scientists will get up to speed at an age closer to 30, than 50. One generous supporter of Wilmer has coined the term ‘Rising Professorships’ for these endowments — reflecting the fact that the recipients of this support are the rising future superstars of their scientific fields.”

In addition to providing direct funding to those researchers, the Greenberg Center will provide mentorship and grantwriting resources to help young scientists apply for — and win — those key NIH grants much earlier in their careers. “It’s an unwritten rule in research that a key milestone is securing that first R01 grant from NIH. But the climb is steep,” says Laura Ensign, Ph.D., the Marcella E. Woll Professor of Ophthalmology and vice chair for research at Wilmer, who will help to mentor early career faculty members through the Greenberg Center.

Even the most promising researchers lack the infrastructure — the lab equipment and the staff — but also the preliminary data needed to bolster their NIH applications, notes Ensign, a biomedical engineer who herself has pioneered several promising nanomedicines that have reached startup stage. The Rising Professorships will help close both gaps.

Wilmer: The Future is Here

Greenberg believes the state of scientific knowledge today is up to the task of ending blindness — and that, as the leader in vision research in the United States and the world, Wilmer Eye Institute is the only logical choice for the establishment of the Sanford and Susan Greenberg Center to End Blindness. “It’s within reach,” adds Sandy Greenberg. “In the Greenberg Center, we’ve created the world’s only facility that is devoted solely to ending blindness for everyone and for evermore.”

McDonnell traces the model for the Greenberg Center to the very beginning of the Wilmer Eye Institute, when Dr. William Holland Wilmer and his patient Aida Breckinridge, a philanthropist whose vision Wilmer had saved, raised the original endowment to get the Institute off the ground. Their “tripartite mission” (integrating patient care, teaching and research under one roof) drives the Institute to this day. Those founding principles foresaw the symbiotic relationship between groundbreaking research to both understand and treat blindness, the mentoring of new generations of specialists and the uncompromising patient care that remain the hallmarks of Wilmer’s global reputation.

Precedents exist for Wilmer faculty eliminating causes of blindness, notes McDonnell. About 40 years ago, Al Sommer joined the Wilmer faculty determined to target trachoma, then the world’s most common cause of corneal blindness (with 8 million or so blind worldwide). Thanks to the efforts of a team of ophthalmologists and epidemiologists and the development of successful strategies in which entire areas of a country receive medication simultaneously, Sommer saw his dream realized. The World Health Organization has certified that most countries afflicted with this disease in the 1980s are today completely disease-free, with the remaining countries well on their way to total elimination of trachoma.

“Ending blindness. Those of us at Wilmer can imagine no more noble goal to which to dedicate our professional lives,” McDonnell says.