Medicine: ‘Eye Chip’ group moves to USC from Hopkins

Ophthalmologists Eugene de Juan Jr. and Mark Humayun and four colleagues have joined the faculty of the Doheny Eye Institute and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
by Lori Oliwenstein
A team of ophthalmologists renowned for inventing an "eye chip" that offers hope for restoring eyesight has moved as a group from Johns Hopkins University to the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The team is headed by ophthalmologists Eugene de Juan Jr. and Mark Humayun, who, along with four colleagues, have joined the faculty of the Doheny Eye Institute and the Keck School.

Pioneers in many areas of vision research and treatment, de Juan and Humayun are perhaps best known for the invention and development of an intraocular retinal prosthesis, or "eye chip," which may be able to restore sight to people with degenerative diseases of the retina such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.

The team is also behind the development of a new microsurgical technique known as macular translocation, designed to treat patients suffering from macular degeneration, a blinding disease of the retina.

De Juan, formerly the Joseph E. Green Professor of Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins, will be CEO of a newly established Retina Institute at the Doheny Eye Institute. Humayun, who will serve as associate director of research at the Retina Institute, was most recently an associate professor of ophthalmology at the Wilmer.

The Retina Institute, de Juan said, will focus on the translational research typical of the Keck School.

"We found USC to be very forward-thinking and flexible," said Humayun. "It has a unique environment for medical research and the application of that research to develop new products and services for patients. In particular, the Doheny Eye Institute and the Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Research provide an unparalleled combination that will help the Retina Institute to develop new therapies for eye diseases and, in particular, retinal diseases."

The addition of de Juan and Humayun to USC will open new avenues of research and treatment for retinal disease, said Stephen J. Ryan, dean of the Keck School. "We are all excited to have Gene and Mark and their team join us to develop and lead the Retina Institute. I have every confidence that they will make important contributions to understanding and treating retinal disease, and will fundamentally change the field and improve the outlook for patients with retinal disease throughout the world."

Added Ronald E. Smith, chair of the department of ophthalmology: "The recruitment of Gene de Juan and Mark Humayun and their team from the Wilmer, combined with our existing excellent retina faculty – Tom Chang, Lawrence Chong, Christine Flaxel and Jennifer Lim – gives us the critical mass of first-rate clinicians, scientists and engineers needed to rapidly advance new treatments of blinding retinal diseases from the laboratory to clinical care of patients."

De Juan placed the credit elsewhere – on the "foresight, courage and leadership of Ryan and Smith, along with the Doheny and USC, to entrust us with the responsibility and give us the freedom to concentrate these resources so these goals can be achieved."

De Juan, a native of Alabama, believes that the best way to solve medical problems is to live with them. "If you’re pushing a person in a wheelchair and there’s no wheelchair access, you get a glimpse of the problems they face," he said. "That’s why, as a retina doctor, I prefer to see the problem cases – the cases that are difficult or impossible. Because it is only through working these cases that I can really understand what the problems are, and how to fix them."

De Juan is an innovator who has used partnerships with industry to develop new medical treatments. He has invented scores of new surgical techniques and devices, and currently holds 22 patents.

At the Wilmer he established the Microsurgery Advanced Design Laboratory, or MADLAB. The team assembled in that lab, most of whom will be joining de Juan at USC, has been responsible for more than 100 inventions over the past nine years, he said. Among them was the development of the retinal translocation surgical procedure that, de Juan said, "is the only treatment that currently can improve vision in patients with macular degeneration."

As a surgeon and biomedical engineer, Humayun can tackle medical problems from several perspectives. His quest, as an ophthalmologist and retina specialist, has been to find a cure for currently untreatable retinal diseases that cause blindness, a quest that led him to help create the "eye chip."

Humayun comes from a family of physicians, including his mother and four of his uncles. He received his medical training at Duke, where he first met de Juan and began talking with him about developing a retinal prosthesis. Humayun earned his M.D. and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of North Carolina, a merging of surgical and engineering skills he says was essential to the development of the retinal prosthesis.

At Johns Hopkins, Humayun and de Juan teamed up to create their retinal prosthesis, which uses state-of-the-art microelectronics. To date, they have done preliminary tests on 17 blind patients with retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration.

"These were short-term studies," Humayun said.

Full-scale clinical trials of a chronically implanted prosthesis are expected to begin soon. That prosthesis will be manufactured by Los Angeles-based Second Sight, founded by Alfred E. Mann, who is also the chairman of the board of directors of the Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Research at USC.

Joining de Juan and Humayun at the Keck School of Medicine are four of their Hopkins colleagues: James Weiland, Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology; Mahmoud Mahmoud, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology; Signe Varner, Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology; and Aaron Barnes, M.S., instructor of ophthalmology.