The UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute now offers sight-saving ocular stem cell transplants for severe eye surface damage, becoming only the second medical institution in the nation to treat this blinding condition.
The Holland Foundation for Sight Restoration, with a $300,000 commitment, has selected the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute as the first of five planned centers of excellence for severe ocular disease care across the country and world in order to expand the availability of this complex treatment.
UCI Health cornea specialist Dr. Marjan Farid, who leads the UCI Health Severe Ocular Surface Disease Program, is the first to be trained in the procedure by pioneering University of Cincinnati ophthalmologist Dr. Edward Holland, who has restored vision for hundreds of individuals with serious damage to their eye surfaces.
“The limbal stem cell transplant had been tried before but always failed, until Dr. Holland learned to leverage immunosuppressant therapy, based on kidney transplant protocols, to keep the body from attacking the newly implanted cells,” said Farid, the eye institute’s director of cornea, cataract and refractive surgery and professor of ophthalmology at the UCI School of Medicine.
“Dr. Holland’s program is the only one in the country that does this procedure well, and now we’re transferring that knowledge to UCI Health to multiply the impact.”
Holland began training Farid in the procedure more than a decade ago, seeing patients and conducting surgeries alongside her at UCI Health. She is now working toward increasing the number of patients with corneal blindness whose vision can be treated and restored.
A key component is having access to the expertise of the UCI Health Kidney Transplant Program, whose nephrologists play a critical role in supporting and helping to manage the limbal stem cell transplantation process.
As a major academic health system, UCI Health operates the largest kidney transplant program in Orange County and has the expertise and resources to support the complex care needs of patients waiting for an ocular stem cell transplant.
The transplant is just one of many steps and procedures in a process that may take up to a year for each patient and requires the expertise of multiple specialists.
Last July, the Holland Foundation hosted a star-studded fundraiser to support the sight-saving services they provide and to help fund and expand these services at the eye institute. A portion of the proceeds will be directed to the eye institute’s Severe Ocular Surface Disease Program.
“It was overwhelming to see the generous donations from our community,” said Farid. “I’m grateful for the support our donors and grateful patients have shown for the eye institute in general, and for our severe ocular surface disease program, specifically. This is just the beginning for us.”
She also hopes to increase the number of UCI Health ophthalmologists who can perform the procedure.
“Just as Ed Holland trained me, I want to train our faculty so that we have an entire team of eye surgeons who can care for these patients.”
UCI Health has a lengthy waiting list of patients whose vision could be restored by an ocular stem cell transplant.
This life-changing surgery also advances the eye institute’s vision of a world without blindness — something close to Farid’s heart because it reflects the legacy of her mentor, the late Roger Steinert, MD, chair of the UCI School of Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology and founding director of the eye institute.
Steinert revolutionized laser surgery techniques to prevent blindness and improve vision that are commonly used today.
“It’s impossible to quantify all that I learned from Dr. Steinert,” she said.
“Not only about ophthalmology and corneal surgery, but about how to be a good doctor, to be gracious and humble, to be a leader both academically and in the ophthalmology world. I know that in developing this program, I’m walking in his footsteps.”