Yesterday’s article by Pam Belluck in the New York Times entitled “A Burst of Technology: Helping the Blind to See” is worth reading for a host of reasons. Physicians and researchers are within hailing distance of restoring sight to tens of thousands of Americans with the very real possibility that the number might become millions. This story which is altogether remarkable and thrilling is all the more meaningful for the heroism and steadfastness of those who have spent their careers fighting blindness for it is a commonplace in “the field” that research dollars for ending blindness are miniscule when compared to a host of other medical fights. Add to this the thousands of ways people can achieve blindness and you only gain more steepness where the dramatic nature of the story is concerned.
I will dispute Ms. Belluck’s assertion that making the blind see is one of science’s “holy grails” for though the subject captures the hearts and minds of people everywhere the dollars spent to cure blindness are tiny as I’ve already pointed out. I think it could be argued that real dollars right now, in this place and time could lick blindness within the decade and in particular I’m speaking of the genetically caused forms of vision loss: macular degeneration, leber’s congenital amaurosis, retinitis pigmentosa, stargart’s disease, and many others. (Please note that I refuse to capitalize these diseases for I hate them, hate them personally, hope to see them consigned to the history books along with the St. Vitus Dance.)
The subject of curing blindness is of course a complex matter. Ms. Belluck’s article features a new video system linked to a retinal chip that can help some blind people see some things. Believe me, seeing “some things” is a big deal. I’m now seeing “some things” after years of watching mud dry and I can attest that “some things” beat mud every minute. In the business of gaining some vision the old Japanese game of “paper wraps stone” is a useful epistemological analogy: low vision beats no vision; vision itself beats the minimal variants–but how to get there for everyone?
I believe that the greatest promise for the greatest number of people will rest with the genetic research that’s currently underway at places like the University of Iowa’s Carver Family Center for Macular Degeneration and at the University of Pennsylvania and at a host of cooperative facilities around the U.S.. I say this not only because gene therapies are within reach but because there’s a tidal wave of Baby Boomers who are about to go blind en masse. And I can attest that the nation’s rehabilitation agencies cannot handle what’s coming.
Therefore I think more dollars spent now on the race to cure blindness would be the best dollars this nation has spent in recent decades. If we harnessed a tenth of what NASA receives in the service of what Ms. Belluck calls the “holy grail” we would find not only the grail but a means to fill it with joy.