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Lloyd M. and Nancy Aiello Gift to Aid Global Diabetes Eye Health

Lloyd M. and Nancy Aiello Gift to Aid Global Diabetes Eye Health

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Last fall, Joslin’s Lloyd M. Aiello, M.D., was awarded the 2009 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in biomedicine. In December, he and his wife, Nancy Jane Beetham Aiello, presented Joslin with $100,000 from the Alpert prize money to aid with initial infrastructure for the Beetham Eye Institute Center for Global Diabetes Eye Health.

The gift will “support the education of young Fellows in Global Telemedicine so that novel treatments may always reach anyone with diabetes wherever they may be in order to provide the timeliest care,” the couple said.

In the 1960s, Dr. Aiello and his father-in law, William P. Beetham, M.D., pioneered a vision-saving technique that is still the standard for treating diabetic eye disease. In people with the disease, blood vessels on the retina are likely to leak or grow abnormally, inflicting major damage to their eyesight. Drs. Aiello and Beetham found a way to stop this process and reduce the risk of vision loss, employing an early ruby laser to scar the retina.

Initially, this approach was more than controversial among ophthalmologists. One concern was that "the laser didn't stop at the eye, it went to the brain," Aiello recalled at the standing-room-only award ceremony held at Joslin in September. 

Another problem, he said, was that many ophthalmologists did not see the need for large-scale clinical trials. "It took many years, but now most ophthalmologists support clinical trials," he said.

This acceptance is due in part to the spectacular success of laser-treatment research. In the 1980s, a large nationwide trial, conducted at 22 clinical centers in the U.S. and co-chaired by Dr. Aiello, found that 95% of treated patients were protected against severe vision loss. "That's a phenomenal treatment—very few things in medicine do as well," commented Emily Chew, M.D., Deputy Director, Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Application at the National Eye Institute. The advance is now preserving the eyesight of millions, she pointed out.

Dr. Aiello and his colleagues went on to design and deploy telemedicine programs, establishing the Joslin Vision Network, which allows remote diagnosis and treatment recommendations for patients with diabetes. In addition to local and international locations, these programs are now deployed at more than 70 sites in the Indian Health Services. Today, Dr. Aiello still spends considerable time in the darkened Reading and Evaluation Center, reviewing eye images from diabetic patients near and far, including an eye care program for young patients at the Children’s Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela.

Describing his lifelong professional crusade as he accepted the Alpert prize, Dr. Aiello quoted mythologist Joseph Campbell: "It is not about the agony of the quest, but the rapture of the revelation."

"We have taken on this quest," Dr Aiello said. "It has had some agony to it but it also has had some rapture!"

Please also see:

Ophthalmologist Receives Alpert Prize for Preventing Blindness in Diabetic Patients (Harvard Focus Magazine)
Beyond Blindness (Harvard Medical School video)

Aiellos at Alpert dinner

Page last updated: November 25, 2014