The Bay Area is known worldwide for its tech startups. Philadelphia is known for its pharmaceutical cluster. Pittsburgh may someday be known for … eyes?

The city’s well-established life sciences cluster just got a big boost from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, to the tune of $25 million. Of that, $20 million will go toward vision care research and development through the Eye & Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh, which supports Pitt’s Departments of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology.

Those outside of the medical community may not think of eyes as one of Pittsburgh’s specialties, but the region is rapidly becoming known for its expertise in vision care. In 2016, Pitt brought in José-Alain Sahel of Sorbonne University, founder and director of the Vision Institute in Paris.

Sahel is known worldwide for developing vision restoration techniques including stem cell implantation, gene therapy, innovative pharmacologic approaches and retinal prostheses. He’s a co-inventor on more than 40 patents and the founder and co-founder of many startup companies.

At Pitt, he’s building a team of vision researchers to rival the best in the world. The team has doubled to include about 70 faculty members, and counting, and will eventually expand to fill the 410,000-square-feet, nine-story UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Tower, which is being built next to UPMC Mercy in Uptown and expected to be completed in 2022.

“We’ll have more space to accommodate more people that we recruited already, from institutions from Singapore, from Hong Kong, from Paris, from London, from Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, UCSF (University of California, San Francisco), so many places across the country, across the world,” says Sahel.

UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Tower. Rendering courtesy of UPMC.

“Pittsburgh stands in a unique position to lead the world in life sciences,” says Hillman Foundation President David Roger. “And this grant will help shape a corridor that will drive the post-pandemic economy and create breakthrough discoveries — to the benefit of the region’s residents — for decades to come.”

Sahel was attracted by the strength of UPMC and Pitt’s School of Medicine as well as the “atmosphere of collegiality” and the strong, tight-knit Jewish community of Squirrel Hill.

“I felt this is a place where I want to spend years,” says the Algerian-born Sahel, who serves as the director of the UPMC Eye Center. “And so I accepted the offer and I became the chair. But the good thing is that Sorbonne University … they wanted me to keep my role in Paris for several years, which I did, and I was able to combine the two environments and to build up a lot of things that I started in Paris, to bring them here — and also establish a lot of partnerships between the Sorbonne and UPMC.”

Sahel plans to bring a multidisciplinary approach to eye care, noting, “questions that patients are asking don’t just fit into one field of science.” The expertise they need spans life sciences as well as many aspects of physics and computational sciences, he says.

Dr. José-Alain Sahel. Photo courtesy of UPMC.

The Hillman grant will also boost vision care access for underserved communities, through direct care and outreach. It will fund a “street lab” to test new treatments and therapies in safe, controlled, real-life and virtual environments. The funding is also expected to create job opportunities for nearby neighborhoods in the city, such as Uptown and the Hill District.

“We have a patient champion who is in charge of making sure that no patient is not covered, and no patient doesn’t understand what needs to be done,” Sahel says.

“We also want to understand the social determinants of health: why people are being excluded from the health system, why people that have access to the health system are not compliant in observance of the treatment, where they don’t understand the help they receive.”

Rooftop garden at the UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Tower. Rendering courtesy of UPMC.

“This gift is an investment in the University of Pittsburgh but also in the people and potential of our region,” says University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “It will drive innovations in vision care and — even more — fuel Pittsburgh’s rise as a world leader in life sciences research.”

In January, Pitt announced a collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health to collaborate on shared interests in ophthalmology. The combined scientific and regulatory expertise will enable research into fields such as augmented reality headsets and brain stimulation to help people with low vision see their surroundings.