Researcher Spotlight: BrightFocus Foundation 2022 Bench-to-Bedside Award Winner Ilyas Washington, PhD
The BrightFocus Foundation 2022 Bench to Bedside Award recipient is Ilyas Washington, PhD, co-founder biOOrg3.14 LLC & Alkeus Pharmaceuticals, Inc. His pioneering work led to a potential new treatment for Stargardt disease, an inherited condition similar to age-related macular degeneration, that received an FDA “Breakthrough Therapy” designation. Learn more about how Dr. Washington and other BrightFocus grantees and alumni are working toward a #mindsightcure at brightfocus.org.
[Narrator] The Bench to Bedside Award goes to Ilyas Washington.
Dr. Washington received key funding from BrightFocus early in his research career. He was an assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center in the Department of Ophthalmology, and recently has gone on to co-found Alkeus Pharma. The journey to founding his own company began years earlier when he was a graduate student at Columbia University.
[Dr. Washington] I started my lab out of postdoc at Columbia. I was fairly early 30s. BrightFocus was the first major funder of my lab. You have an idea. In this case we had an idea of why the eye started to degenerate with age. The goal as a young scientist is trying to get support for your idea and then you have to remember it's not in a vacuum. Other people have ideas and you start competing with them, and if you get support the sort of ideas that prevail are mainly because of people that believe in you as a scientist.
[Narrator] His research focuses on understanding how unavoidable environmental phenomena such as light, gravity, magnetic fields, and diet influence and dictate human health on a molecular level. His research group uses this knowledge to better understand the origins of disease and design future medicines. In 2021, a proposed treatment for Stargardt's disease, based on Dr. Washington's foundational research received breakthrough therapy designation from the FDA.
[Dr. Washington] And BrightFocus as a foundation, they took a chance on me. The foundation is set up for people. I think they use their understanding of people to sort of take a chance on people because they're able to evaluate the person and the idea right, and then the data. But really the person drives the sort of belief on these projects. At the end of the day, it drives me and my lab. It's a personal problem. It's a people problem. If we can help. I think I can help—I think it almost sounds crazy—I think I'm the only one that can help. That's what you tell yourself. That’s what drives you. You tell yourself, "Hey I can actually do this. I can cure something. I can stop someone from losing their vision." And that's why you keep going through all the failure—through all the things that don't work—through all the people who tell you no. Lots of people tell you no. Lots of people tell you, “No this idea is not going to do it. You're off base.” Lots of nos. After all the nos, it really helps when someone like BightFocus looks at you and says, “Hey, yes.” [Music]