Casino Mogul Donates $25 Million to Univ. of Iowa

By Diane Heldt, Reporter

University of Iowa professor Ben Hunnicutt gives a lecture to his Historical and Philosophical Perspectives of Leisure class Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008 on the lawn in front of the Old Capitol building on the UI campus in Iowa City. Hunnicutt said he moved the class outside after his students suggested it because it was such a beautiful day. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

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By Larry Burkum

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The University of Iowa will name the new Institute for Vision Research in honor of Stephen A. Wynn to recognize a $25 million gift from the Las Vegas businessman.

The state Board of Regents approved the naming today during a meeting in Ames.

The Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research will have a mission to propel the UI into a world-leading role in the eradication of human blindness through research, education and clinical care, UI officials said in announcing the gift and naming.

"It's no longer if blindness will be cured, it's when, and Mr. Wynn's gift will dramatically shorten the time" to get that done, said Dr. Edwin Stone, director of the new institute and UI professor of ophthalmology. "A very generous man saw an opportunity to make a difference for tens of thousands, if not millions, of people and he acted on it. A very, very generous person who knows what it's like to have lost vision, and doesn't want other people to experience that."

Wynn, chairman and chief executive officer of Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas,which runs numerous Las Vegas casinos and hotels, has lost vision due to a rare inherited eye disease. He became familiar with the UI's work and expertise in vision research, and he and Stone have been acquainted for years, Stone said. The UI's ophthalmology department has long been ranked in the top 10 nationally.

"I am thrilled by the pace of the scientific progress that has occurred in the past few years and I feel that the prospect of finding a cure is possible and probable in the short term and certain in the long term," Wynn said in a statement from the UI.

The researchers at the UI institute have already uncovered secrets of the genome and are now on the cusp of applying them in the clinic, Wynn said.

"I never dreamed that I would witness such breakthroughs in my lifetime but the breakthroughs are now at hand," he said.

The $25 million from Wynn will be used to support research, recruit new scientists and refurbish parts of some research labs, Stone said.

The vision institute will bring together under one umbrella the work of about 130 UI faculty and researchers, Stone said.

Gene replacement therapies have already begun for certain inherited eye diseases, he said. Earlier this year, the UI began conducting gene replacement therapy for a rare inherited eye disease, restoring a missing gene that makes it possible to restore vision to a child, he said.

"The cure is already underway," Stone said. "We say single digit years. In less than 10 years from now, we'll be able to successfully replace retinal cells and actually restore vision to people that have lost their retinal cells from previously untreatable diseases."
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