Medical research continues to improve the quality of health care and to find treatments and cures for challenging diseases – but providing the infrastructure and recruiting top clinicians and scientists to advance these discoveries requires significant capital. Support from donors, whose gifts can fill funding gaps and elevate facilities to world-class research hubs, plays a vital role in advancing research and translating discoveries into treatments for patients. While spending decisions are driven by the institutions, donor funds can be key to realizing the vision.
As one of more than five million Canadians living with eye disease, the legendary Bay Street investment banker, Donald K. Johnson, understands the benefits of medical research and how his recent $50-million donation to his namesake Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute at University Health Network (UHN) will contribute to improving outcomes for others suffering from vision loss and vision-related issues in Canada and around the world.
Since his first gift in 2007, Mr. Johnson’s philanthropy has helped the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute at Toronto Western Hospital grow into Canada’s largest and most comprehensive clinical and research hub dedicated to vision.
Six years ago, to celebrate his 80th birthday, he made a $10-million donation to the Eye Institute. “That gift enabled us to build our discovery research capacity, provided resources to recruit scientists and helped us increase clinical research,” says Dr. Valerie Wallace, co-director of the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute and the Donald K. Johnson Chair in Vision Research.
“One of our first recruits with his  gift was Dr. Michael Reber from Strasbourg, France. Another was Dr. Karun Singh, who focuses on stem cells, and then clinician-scientist Dr. Brian Ballios,” says Dr. Wallace. “Without Don’s philanthropy, we couldn’t have recruited these people and we wouldn’t have had a sustainable clinical research unit. He is seeing his legacy in real time and that must be satisfying.”
Dr. Wallace says Mr. Johnson’s latest gift will enable UHN to recruit additional world-leading vision scientists and clinicians and retain those it has, increase research capacity and accelerate the translation of research discoveries into treatments for patients.
Those advancements will enable the Eye Institute to tackle big projects that could lead to the development of therapies for conditions like macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, she says.
“What makes Mr. Johnson such an incredible donor is that he sees the value of the research enterprise and especially fundamental discovery-based research. And he knows it can take time; investing now is the only way to have an impact on disease treatment in the future,” says Dr. Wallace.
How a drug is developed, even the idea for a type of drug, is the result of years of research and not necessarily eye-focused research, says Dr. Wallace, pointing out blood vessel inhibitor drugs that are used in treating wet age-related macular degeneration came out of decades of work around the world on how cancer tumours co-opt blood vessels.
“For those kinds of breakthroughs, you are standing on many people’s shoulders and the research they have done,” she adds.
While Dr. Wallace says the Eye Institute is fortunate to benefit from the philanthropy of Mr. Johnson and his late wife, Anna McCowan Johnson, there is always a need for additional support.
“For potential donors who want to play the long game and back discovery research, it has been shown time and time again that if you support smart people who are inherently curious about problems and their solutions, your gift will have impact,” she says.
“The legacy of Mr. Johnson’s philanthropy will enable the Eye Institute to have a national and global impact. It is going to convince young people to work on these problems,” says Dr. Wallace. “You want the next pool of really smart talent to turn their attention and their brilliance to solving [vision-related] issues. If we have the presence and the impact, we will be able to recruit and train the next generation of researchers, and that’s quite a legacy.”
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