The joy of giving sight

Generous donors fund innovative breakthroughs for retinal diseases

Susan and Tom Harrington

While playing golf five years ago, Tom Harrington noticed he had difficulty seeing the golf flag. This was a first for him, so he scheduled a visit to see an ophthalmologist. Tom received a diagnosis of dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD, a leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. for ages 50 and older, is caused by the death of the photoreceptor cells in the back of the retina, leading to progressive loss of central vision and in some cases, blindness.

Tom was told there wasn’t a cure or effective treatments for dry AMD and there was no way to even know how much and how quickly his vision would deteriorate. Desiring a more auspicious answer, he came to the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford. There, Steven Sanislo, MD, clinical professor of ophthalmology, arranged for him and his wife, Susan, to meet with several research teams, all passionately at work to find a breakthrough for those suffering from dry AMD. They were introduced to Vinit Mahajan, MD, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology, who directs a lab studying genetics, proteomics and phenomics to identify molecules involved in AMD and other retinal diseases to develop improved treatments and cures.

“Although Dr. Mahajan’s collaborative research includes complex ideas, he communicated it in a way Susan and I could easily understand,” Tom said. “I have friends who work in university research who say they are trying to discover something, but not necessarily trying to solve a problem. Dr. Mahajan is truly trying to find a cure for AMD. It’s just as exciting, really, as being part of a start-up on the for-profit side.”

Tom, a successful entrepreneur who has established five start-ups in Silicon Valley, and Susan, a strong advocate for educational, reproductive health, and environmental non-profit initiatives, have dedicated their lives to making a difference. Knowing that AMD affected not just Tom, but many people worldwide, the Harringtons made a philanthropic gift to advance Mahajan’s research.

Mahajan and his team are taking a multi-faceted approach to address the urgent need for improved AMD treatments. Proteomics, the study of proteins, is one example where the team’s efforts are showing great promise. Mahajan and his group found that when photoreceptors degenerate, certain proteins essential to retinal health are lost. By replacing specific metabolites, they were able to slow retinal degeneration in mice.

“If retinal damage can be delayed for longer than a patient’s lifespan, the disease, while not cured, is no longer a concern,” Mahajan said.

Their next step is to develop a therapeutic that could be administered into the eye to preserve photoreceptor health and vision in humans.

 “The joy of giving is that Susan and I are able to feel that we are part of this team that is working towards a greater good,” Tom said. “We are fortunate enough to fund research we feel passionate about that could change people’s lives. There’s great hope, and there is already considerable progress. People with this disease can look forward to some breakthroughs in the next few years.”


Kathryn Sill is a web and communications specialist for the Byers Eye Institute in the Department of Ophthalmology, at Stanford University School of Medicine. Email her at