Impact of Giving

These are the stories of the individuals and foundations who help advance Chicago medicine and science through their vision and philanthropy.

Isaac Lidsky

Donor Stories

Restoring Hope for Degenerative Eye Diseases

Hope for Vision, an organization dedicated to eradicating blindness, awarded Chicago’s retinal genomics program a $100,000 grant for its research on retinal degenerative diseases. The organization provides seed funding to support groundbreaking research aimed at restoring vision loss.

For Miami native Betti Lidsky, the beauty of the human spirit is revealed when people see with their hearts instead of their eyes. Lidsky, founding member of Hope for Vision, has seen that beauty demonstrated numerous times throughout the rearing of her four children—three of whom are legally blind. “We’re fortunate because many great scientists are out there who are already restoring vision,” says Lidsky. “My life has been totally changed, but so many blessings have occurred and I now have a clear idea of what’s really important.”

Undeniably, her most important challenge has been seeking out researchers who are passionate about developing treatments and cures for blinding diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disorder that stole her now adult children’s sight. Lidsky’s search led her to the University of Chicago Medical Center and to Michael Grassi, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery. Grassi, a clinician-scientist, specializes in the diagnosis and management of hereditary retinal diseases, like retinitis pigmentosa. “I’m so thrilled for the Chicago area because they have Dr. Grassi,” Lidsky says. “He’s just really a wonderful human being and a brilliant scientist.”

Restoring vision loss
In addition to raising awareness about blinding diseases, Hope for Vision provides seed funding to support groundbreaking research aimed at restoring vision loss. The organization, founded in 2005, recently awarded Chicago’s retinal genomics program a $100,000 grant for its research on retinal degenerative diseases.

“The impact and the suffering caused by retinitis pigmentosa is very real for those people who are touched by the disease,” says Grassi. “The tools we have now to understand and potentially treat such conditions are revolutionary and people shouldn’t be discarded just because they were unlucky enough to inherit a rare condition.”

The initial funding provided by Hope for Vision has been directed toward the University’s Cellular Screening Center where researchers can test hundreds of thousands of different compounds that could potentially slow or reverse the degeneration process of retinitis pigmentosa in cell-based models of the disease. The state-of-the-art center, housed within the Institute of Genomics and Systems Biology, is one the fastest growing setups in the country. “This is an incredible source of excitement and hope for the patients and the families afflicted with this disease,” Grassi says.

20/20 Vision by 2020
Chicago’s award is part of Hope for Vision’s larger 20/20 Vision Campaign, which is to restore 20/20 vision by the year 2020 for the millions distressed by blinding diseases.

With Betti’s son Isaac Lidsky at the helm of the Hope for Vision flagship office based in Washington, D.C., great strides have already been made in reaching scientists with phenomenal expertise in eye disease restoration. “We’re doing a lot of things on the fundraising side to raise money, but without scientists like Dr. Grassi, there would be no reason to raise the money,” Isaac says. “The work that he’s doing is tremendous and we look at him as a long-term partner for the future.”

A uniquely difficult experience
Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the young age of 13, Isaac’s efforts stem from a very personal place that began with him watching his two older sisters tackle the same disease. “I obviously wish that this was something that my sisters never had to deal with. But, this is a uniquely difficult experience, and it’s much easier when you can share it with people you are close to,” says Isaac. “Fortunately, losing my vision really never prohibited me from doing what I wanted to do.”

If anything, he says, it gave him the impetus to excel, which is evident by his many accomplishments. Named the first blind U.S. Supreme Court clerk to former justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Isaac graduated with honors from Harvard at 19. A former child actor who played the role of Weasel on the ’90s sitcom Saved By the Bell: The New Class, Isaac says his greatest role will be educating and inspiring people to fund science to cure blindness. “I grew up learning from my parents’ example and watching them and their friends raise awareness and funding in Miami,” he says. “We have been blessed to get to know and become friends with a lot of the leading, preeminent scientists in the field.”

Despite the challenges retinitis pigmentosa placed on the Lidsky family, Betti strongly believes that the supporters and friends they’ve gained along the way will lead to a brighter future for her family as well as others. “I have a very important mission to live by that I know is going to have a great resolution,” she says. “There is always hope. If you want something bad enough, and you work towards it, it will happen. You can’t give up hope.”

For more information, contact Stephanie Dahl at sdahl@mcdmail.uchicago.edu.

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