Las Vegas casino tycoon Steve Wynn gave US$25 million to support blindness research at the University of Iowa after becoming convinced that its scientists were leading the way in the search for a cure.
Wynn, 71, said university researchers were "knocking on the door" of a discovery that was unthinkable when he was diagnosed with a rare eye defect when he was in his 20s.
He said there was no hope then for individuals inflicted with diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa, which has slowly compromised Wynn's vision and causes nighttime blindness and a lack of peripheral vision. Today, he believes it is possible that within his lifetime, scientists will be able to use stem cells to restore vision by growing new cells that are not defective and transplanting them into patients' eyes.
He spoke with amazement as he described how Iowa researchers had learned how to grow the cells and were testing them on mice, some of which have been implanted with Wynn's cells.
"This is an exhilarating, quite exciting place. To a scientist, this is like going to a rock concert," Wynn said. "I mean there is stuff going on in these rooms here that, to put it in the common vernacular, is really far out."
Wynn spoke after hundreds gathered at the university for an event celebrating the Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research, which was renamed to honour the US$25 million gift announced by Wynn in August.
The money will help the institute build a new laboratory to grow stem cells, hire more scientists and accelerate studies already under way.
Wynn had few prior ties to Iowa, and Friday marked the first of what he said would be many visits to the campus. He credited his long-time business partner and director of his charitable foundation, Steven Dezii, with following research developments over the past 20 years and helping convince him that Iowa could make the best use of a sizeable donation.
He said the research made his business pursuits feel mundane in comparison.
"The rest of the world is waiting with bated breath for the kind of work you're doing," he said. "To help keep the lights on in this institute has now become synonymous with keeping the lights on in people's eyes."