BrightFocus Foundation

José Cunha-Vaz Named 2024 Helen Keller Laureate by BrightFocus Foundation, Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education

Ophthalmologist recognized for over a half century of groundbreaking scientific contributions to vision research.
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SEATTLE (May 10, 2024)—Global brain and vision research nonprofit BrightFocus Foundation and the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education have named ophthalmologist José Cunha-Vaz, MD, PhD, the recipient of the 2024 Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research in recognition of his immense contributions to the field. 

This year's award was presented May 7 during a dinner and ceremony at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), the world’s largest gathering of eye and vision scientists. Keller Johnson-Thompson, great-grand niece of Helen Keller, awarded the prize to Dr. Cunha-Vaz. 

Dr. Cunha-Vaz's landmark discoveries have influenced generations of scientists and have had a major impact on clinical practice. These include the discovery of the anatomical location of the blood-retinal-barrier, which is now known to prevent noxious chemicals within the blood stream from entering the eye. This discovery was critical to future pharmacologic and physiological research on normal functional processes in the eye and the understanding of diseases now known to be caused directly by breakdown of the blood-retinal-barrier, such as wet macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. 

Awarded annually, the Keller Prize recognizes excellence as demonstrated by several significant professional research contributions to vision science or for a single research contribution of exceptional importance to vision science and is chosen by an international panel of biomedical physicians and researchers. 

José Cunha-Vaz, MD, PhD.

Dr. Cunha-Vaz is emeritus professor of ophthalmology at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and president of the Association for Innovation and Biomedical Research on Light and Image, a not-for-profit clinical research organization. He is also Honorary Editor of Ophthalmic Research, Coordinator of the Diabetic Retinopathy and Retinal Vascular Diseases Section of the European Vision Institute Clinical Research Network (; he became chair and director of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Coimbra Hospital in 1972. 

“Dr. Cunha-Vaz's numerous contributions to vision research have laid the foundation for much of what scientists know today about the blood-retinal-barrier, among other areas,” said Stacy Pagos Haller, President and CEO, BrightFocus Foundation. “He exemplifies the importance of pursuing the untried, the unexpected, and the most promising research to discover cures for vision diseases.”  

“Dr. José Cunha-Vaz discovered how blood vessels in the retina of the eye protect us against sight loss, and what happens when they become diseased. His findings now underlie most retinal vascular therapies, such as the treatment of diabetic retinopathy. He is internationally revered for these studies, spanning decades. Dr. Cunha-Vaz began his research career working with two previous Helen Keller Laureates, Dr. Norman Ashton (1998) and Dr. David Maurice (2003), illustrating the powerful influence of vision research collaborators,” said Robert Morris, MD, president of the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education. 


About BrightFocus Foundation 

BrightFocus Foundation is a premier global nonprofit funder of research to defeat Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. Through its flagship research programs — Alzheimer’s Disease Research, National Glaucoma Research, and Macular Degeneration Research — the Foundation has awarded nearly $300 million in groundbreaking research funding over the past 50 years and shares the latest research findings, expert information, and resources to empower the millions impacted by these devastating diseases. Learn more at

About Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education  

Based on the legacy of Helen Keller, the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education strives to prevent blindness and deafness by advancing research and education. The Foundation aspires to be a leader in integrating sight, speech, and hearing research with the greater biomedical research community, creating and coordinating a peer-reviewed, worldwide network of investigators and institutions.  


Media Contacts 

Kaci Baez 
BrightFocus Foundation 

Laura Beckwith  
Chief Operating Officer, Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education  
(205) 933-9389