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Center for Vision Research marks 25th anniversary

At its founding, the Center for Vision Research had a clear vision. “Our primary goal was to enhance the research and training efforts of vision scientists in our region,” said John Hoepner, MD, professor and a long-serving chair (now Emeritus) of Upstate Medical University’s Department of Ophthalmology at Upstate Medical University. In the intervening years, the center has become a national leader in vision research.

Today, Oct. 21,  the Center for Vision Research marks its 25 th anniversary with a symposium on vision science that includes internationally recognized expert scientists and former New York Gov. David Paterson. For more information on the symposium, go here: https://www.upstate.edu/cvr/symposium/

In October 1997, the Center for Vision Research was created thanks to the efforts of Hoepner, Barry Knox. PhD, and Robert B. Barlow, Jr., PhD.  From the start, the leadership of the CVR, as it came to be known, recognized the need to secure financial support to ensure researchers had a platform from which to pursue their work to preserve and improve vision.

While chair of the Ophthalmology, Hoepner led the establishment of an endowment to support the CVR along with obtaining competitively awarded grants from Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB). RPB’s generous support underscored the quality of work being done at the CVR as only a subset of Ophthalmology departments receive RPB recognition and with that support Hoepner, Barlow and Knox helped the fledgling center recruit outstanding scientists.

Support from the Lions Club, District 20Y-1, was instrumental in developing this endowment and has become a continuing theme for the CVR. Together, the two have been pursuing the goal of ending blindness. The relationship has expanded over the years and today there is a Lion’s Club chapter that meets at the CVR every third Monday at 6 p.m.

Research support from the National Institutes of Health, in this case the National Eye Institute is the gold standard for research centers.  Barlow, who died in 2009, brought decades of continuous support from the National Eye Institute, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health of the NIH.  Knox, too, brought several decades of continuous support from the NEI. This led to the recruitment of additional faculty, Zuber, Viczian, Calvert, Pignoni and Solessio.  Each of whom excelled in the funding arena.

Of course, the founders brought much more than funding to the new enterprise. Hoepner’s leadership brought to the forefront an emphasis on understanding the cell and molecular biology of the retina and vision and thus the underlying cause of most prevalent blinding diseases. Over the years, the CVR leadership has been able to recruit outstanding young and mid-career scientists who are committed to the collaborative enterprise that is the operating mode at the center.

In 2014, William Brunken, PhD, was recruited as the center’s new director as well as a  professor and vice chair for research in ophthalmology and professor of neuroscience and physiology (secondary).  Brunken was charged with reinvigorating the CVR just as it moved into its new home in the Neuroscience Research Building on South Crouse Street.

Dedication to its mission has brought continuing and increasing support to the CVR. With the successful recruitment in 2016 of a new chair of Ophthalmology, Professor Robert Fechtner, MD, RPB funding was restored in 2017 and a new round of faculty recruitments begun—more than doubling the size of the original center. Drs Bernstein, Martinez-De Luna, Herberg, Ganapathy, and just this year, Dr Spencer—the center has grown to 14 faculty. These faculty include professors from Neuroscience, Francesca Pignoni, PhD, (the chair) and Huaiyu Hu, PhD, as well as Daniel Tso, PhD, from neurosurgery.

Brunken reported funding for research at Ophthalmology had reached nearly $ 4 million annually in 2021, doubling in just five years. He notes that many milestones have been reached, including the first VA Merit award (Bernstein), a Stein Innovator Award (Calvert), and the first K08 award (Ganapathy).  These awards Brunken says “highlight the firepower of our faculty researchers, they each are at the cutting edge of their fields.”  

Despite its focus on what Brunken calls “discovery science," the fundamentals of cell and molecular biology, “the CVR remains committed to the development of new and advanced treatments for blinding disease.”  Brunken notes that faculty in the CVR are “actively pursuing ocular tissue engineering to simultaneously study and treat glaucoma; working to understanding the fundamentals of photoreceptor degeneration and develop regenerative technologies; exploring the regenerative capacity of both photoreceptors and ganglion cells.

“What started with three dedicated vision scientists has, in 25 years, developed into a center with international reach,” Brunken added. The CVR’s accomplishments have the potential to impact the vision of millions of people around the world.

“The development of our first biotech startup company (DUB Biologics, Bernstein) is just the beginning of a new and exciting future," Brunken said. “There is a famous science aphorism—if you are thinking of problems that can be solved in a lifetime, you’re not thinking hard enough.  While I may not live long enough to see what the next 25 years of research at the CVR  will bring, I know they will be exciting.”


Peter Calvert, MD, one of the center's leading researchers, left, with postdoctoral fellow Himanshu Malhotra, PhD.