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Washington University and Johns Hopkins University Researchers Win Helen Keller Prize

Recognized for Groundbreaking Research  to Save Sight
  • Press Release
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helen keller awardees 2022
Pictured from left: Laura Beckwith of Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, Stacy Pagos Haller of BrightFocus Foundation, Michael A. Kass, MD of Washington University School of Medicine, Mae Gordon, PhD of Washington University School of Medicine, Diane Bovenkamp, PhD of BrightFocus Foundation, Sheila West, PhD of Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Keller Johnson-Thompson of Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, and Robert Morris, MD of Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education.

May 4, 2022 (DENVER, CO)—Washington University in St. Louis professors Mae Gordon, PhD, and Michael Kass, MD, received the 2022 Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research yesterday. The annual prize, presented by BrightFocus Foundation and the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, honors scientific discovery and excellence and is chosen by an independent awards committee.  

“Glaucoma progressively and permanently destroys peripheral vision. Tragically, it often goes unnoticed until becoming quite advanced,” said Robert Morris, MD, President of the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, noting, “By skillfully designing and managing a clinical trial lasting for over twenty years, these Helen Keller Laureates ultimately found the answers to how glaucoma development can be predicted and prevented.”  

BrightFocus President and CEO Stacy Pagos Haller stated, “The work of Drs. Gordon, Kass and West is a bold testament to the power of science to save sight. The Keller Prize recognizes the ways Drs. Gordon and Kass have transformed our understanding and treatment of glaucoma and how Dr. West curbed blindness around the world."    

The two researchers were recognized for their landmark work leading to a significant understanding of the natural progression and effective treatment of glaucoma, which drove improvements in public health for vision disease.   

“I am humbled and thrilled to share the 2022 Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research with Dr. Michael A. Kass,” said Dr. Gordon. “We never dreamed that our research, that started with a simple question, would change clinical management of ocular hypertension worldwide.  This prize honors every study participant, technician and clinician who contributed to this research over the last two decades.”  

“I am delighted to receive the Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research.  It is particularly meaningful to me that my mentor, Dr. Bernard Becker, was the second recipient of this prize. It must be emphasized that large-scale clinical trials depend on the talent and hard work of hundreds of individuals. Their contributions should be recognized,” said Dr. Kass.

 

 

Johns Hopkins University’s Sheila West, PhD, PharmD, the 2020 Keller Laureate, was recognized in person at the event for her seminal work to curb blindness in developing nations. Dr. West, whose award ceremony was cancelled by the pandemic, led research which heavily shaped the World Health Organization’s guidelines for reducing trachoma, a leading cause of preventable blindness triggered by lack of access to clean water and sanitation. The 2020 Prize presentation was delayed by the COVID pandemic. 

“I am thrilled to receive the 2020 Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research and to join the ranks of such luminaries as John Dowling, Alfred Sommer, Jeremy Nathans, King Wai Yau and Hugh Taylor. The Prize is especially meaningful to me because it is rewarding research in the eye diseases that afflict the most disadvantaged populations in the world,” said Dr. West. The awards were presented at a dinner and ceremony in Denver held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO), the largest vision research conference in the world.

About the Laureates

  • Sheila West, PhD, PharmD, is the El-Maghraby Professor of Preventive Ophthalmology and Vice Chair for Research at the Wilmer Eye Institute, with a joint appointment in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her research interests include trachoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and vision and function in older persons.

    Dr. West received her PhD in epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and her PharmD. from the University of California, San Francisco. She joined the Wilmer faculty in 1984.

    Dr. West has been recognized for her wide- ranging discoveries in public health ophthalmology, notably in trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness worldwide. Her research has informed all aspects of the World Health Organization SAFE Strategy for trachoma control. She demonstrated that a single dose of azithromycin could reduce recurrence of post-operative trichiasis by 30%; her research showed that several years of annual MDA would likely be needed to achieve WHO goal of reducing trachoma to <5% at district level, which led to the recommendations on program survey frequency; she led the first clinical trial to demonstrate that clean faces would lead to reduction in trachoma, and that providing water to trachoma communities is not enough to reduce trachoma. She is internationally recognized as at the forefront of bringing population science to ophthalmology, and was the first to report that cataract-specifically nuclear cataract –was related to smoking. Further work led to authoring the Chapter in the Surgeon General’s report on the risk of eye diseases with smoking. She has published extensively on disparities in eye health and was the first to find differences in prevalence of Cataract and AMD between African American and Caucasian populations. She was also the first to study the population prevalence and risk factors for Diabetic Retinopathy in Latinx population in Arizona AND that Glaucoma was a leading cause of blindness in this population.

    Awards:

    • 2019 Mildred Weisenfeld Award for Excellence in Ophthalmology - Association for Research and Vision in Ophthalmology
    • 2018 Al Sumait Prize for Health
    • 2017 International Blindness Prevention Award - American Academy of Ophthalmology
    • 2016 Joanne G. Angle Award - Association for Research and Vision in Ophthalmology
  • Dr. Michael Kass is the Bernard Becker Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine.

    Dr. Kass did undergraduate training at the University of Michigan and received his M.D. degree and M.S. in neurophysiology from Northwestern University School of Medicine. His first academic position was Assistant Professor at Yale University School of Medicine, and he then returned to the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine, rising through the academic ranks to Professor. He was Chairman of the Department from 1998 to 2014.

    Dr. Kass conducted some of the earliest studies on the effect of prostaglandins on the eye. This eventually led to the development of effective pharmacologic treatments for glaucoma. He demonstrated that adherence to prescribed medical treatment is suboptimal in many individuals which might explain why some glaucoma patients progress despite good intraocular pressure measurements in the office. He participated in the 5FU and Glaucoma Filtering Surgery Trial which proved that antimetabolite agents improved the results of trabeculectomy. Dr. Kass served as Principal Investigator of the Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS). Ocular hypertension occurs in 4 - 7% of the people in the United States above the age of forty and is a key risk factor for the development of open-angle glaucoma. OHTS provided level 1 proof that early treatment reduces the incidence of open-angle glaucoma. OHTS provides a predictive model for estimating the risk of developing open-angle glaucoma and twenty-year estimates of the incidence of visual field loss. These data allow the patient and the clinician to make informed decisions about the frequency of examinations and the potential benefit of early treatment.

    Dr. Kass has received the Life Achievement Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the International Glaucoma Societies Award, the Leslie Dana Medal from the St. Louis Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the President’s Award from the American Glaucoma Society.

  • Dr. Mae Gordon is a Professor in the Departments of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Division of Biostatistics at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.

    Dr. Gordon received her B.A. degree from Portland State University in 1967 and her Ph.D. in Sociology/Psychology and Psychometrics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1979. She completed her Ph.D. fellowship in research methodology from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health.

    Chief among Dr. Gordon’s contributions to eye research has been the development of new measures and protocols. For the “Collaborative Longitudinal Evaluation in Keratoconus”, the first large-scale observational cohort study of Keratoconus, she helped develop the first photo-documentation protocol of corneal scarring with high test-retest and inter-grader reliability. Because this study did not have pilot data, a 10% random sample was recalled for retesting to confirm assumptions used to project statistical power. She received the Koch Award from the American Academy of Optometry for this collaboration. Other measures developed by Dr. Gordon include photo-documentation of contact lens fit in Keratoconus eyes, vision-specific quality of life survey in children with cerebral palsy and the “Glaucoma Symptom Questionnaire”. She was the site Principal Investigator for the field test of the NEI-Visual Function Questionnaire.

    Her collaboration with Dr. Michael Kass and the Steering Committee of the Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS), which has spanned more than twenty years, has changed clinical management of ocular hypertension. The OHTS was the first study to provide Level 1 evidence of the safety and efficacy of topical ocular hypotensive medication in reducing the incidence of glaucoma in individuals with ocular hypertension. These results justified CMS reimbursement of ocular hypotensive therapy. OHTS developed a new five factor prediction model for developing glaucoma which included a powerful unexpected factor-central corneal thickness. Dr. Gordon led a successful effort to replicate the prediction model in a large European study. Corneal thickness measurements are now included in the preferred practice plans worldwide. Importantly, the prediction model identified a large majority of ocular hypertensive patients at low risk of glaucoma and who could be considered for management by close observation. The prediction model has been shown to be accurate out to twenty years.

    OHTS datasets, which have been shared with many investigators, have proven useful for defining “ground truth” for testing AI models of POAG conversion. Consistency of glaucoma diagnosis over twenty years was achieved by adjudication of endpoints by a masked Endpoint Committee. OHTS is the first glaucoma study to use an Endpoint Committee. The OHTS was awarded the Association of International Glaucoma Societies Award and the New York Academy of Medicine Lewis Ruden Glaucoma Prize.

    Dr. Gordon has served on numerous Data and Safety Monitoring committees including “Open-

    label, randomized controlled trial of hydrochloroquine alone or hydrochloroquine plus azithromycin or chloroquine alone or chloroquine plus azithromycin in the treatment of SARS CoV-2 infection” and “Tear protein biomarkers of refractive surgery pain”, among others. She has been a member of the National Advisory Eye Council (2006-2010) and the National Institutes of Health, Council of Councils (2009-2012).

 

About BrightFocus Foundation  

BrightFocus Foundation is a premier global nonprofit funder of research and provides expert information to defeat Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration and glaucoma. BrightFocus is currently supporting a $65 million global portfolio of more than 260 projects. International grant applications are now available on brightfocus.org.  

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.

 


 

Contacts: 

Kaci Baez
Vice President, Integrated Marketing and Communications, BrightFocus Foundation 
(301) 556-9370
kbaez@brightfocus.org 

Laura Beckwith
Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education
laura_beckwith@bellsouth.net

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