A lifelong passion to help people suffering from diseases of the eye led José-Alain Sahel, MD, to UPMC in western Pennsylvania, where he is launching a new generation of innovations in therapies and patient care that will benefit patients nationally.

“Bionic vision, gene and stem cell therapies, prosthetic vision — these and other breakthrough therapies are on the horizon. And they’ll restore some sight like never before,” says Dr. Sahel, one of the world’s foremost vision research scientists and clinical director of the UPMC Eye Center.

New treatments for inherited and acquired blinding diseases of the retina, based on gene therapy and stem cell therapy, are now in clinical trials. And new vision technology was recently approved for clinical trials by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Sahel has achieved wide recognition as a leading researcher in these fields. His innovative ideas and leadership will soon find a new home: the UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital.

Paris to Pittsburgh

Dr. Sahel, who joined UPMC in 2016, is known internationally as expert in vision restoration. As chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is developing interventions such as stem cell implantation, gene therapy, and the artificial retina, as well as innovative pharmacologic approaches. Dr. Sahel’s accomplishments include founding roles in 10 vision startups as well as an internationally recognized vision research institute that is now a model replicated around the world.

“I’m excited about this new hospital,” says Dr. Sahel. “We’ll be able to expand significantly on the work we’re doing now at the UPMC Eye Center, and we’ll be working on a global scale.” A collaboration with Institut de la Vision in Paris and Université Pierre et Marie Curie of the Sorbonne Universités will bring together more than 500 scientists with complementary expertise in what Dr. Sahel describes as “a truly collaborative international institute, producing multiple innovations in care” for age-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

A Change in Direction

Born in Algeria, Dr. Sahel has lived and worked in Paris, Strasbourg, London, Boston, and now Pittsburgh. Although he is now an international leader in ophthalmology, Dr. Sahel had originally planned a career in pediatric oncology in France. For family reasons, he started a rotation in ophthalmology and soon became captivated by the physiology of sight and the challenges of vision loss.

Compassion for Patients

During residencies in Strasbourg and Paris, he became frustrated by the incurability of eye disease in many of his patients. Completing a doctoral program — which led to a fellowship at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, and a visiting academic opportunity at Harvard Medical School — enabled him to add research scientist to his growing resume.

Returning to France with his family, Dr. Sahel put used his research experience to found 10 vision startups, including the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Physiopathology of the Retina in Strasbourg in 1992. There, he and his team uncovered the process by which retinitis pigmentosa causes blindness and found a way to use gene therapy to slow it down. A clinical trial of the therapy begins soon.

Success in Strasbourg led to an opportunity to establish another research center, the Institut de la Vision at Quinze-Vingts National Ophthalmology Hospital in Paris. Research at the Institut, in collaboration with several international partners, introduced promising gene therapies for Stargardt disease, Usher syndrome, and Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON). Other promising research from the Institut includes optogenetic vision restoration, in which implanted proteins restore light sensitivity to dormant retinal cells for bionic vision applications. Working with several visual technology startups, Dr. Sahel has been a leader in developing bionic vision technology, including the PRIMA system developed with Stanford University and Pixium Vision. The technology was recently approved for clinical trials in the United States.

A Hub of International Collaboration

In 2016, Dr. Sahel’s journey brought him UPMC’s Eye Center, which will part of the new UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital.

Expected to open in 2020, the new hospital is part of a $2 billion investment in western Pennsylvania by UPMC that includes new centers for cancer, heart, and transplant . “The hub is going to be here,” Dr. Sahel says. “We’re bringing everything together: experts in optic nerve regeneration, immunology, neuroscience, surgery, biomaterials, and many other areas.”

Care for an Aging Population

Caring for the aging population in western Pennsylvania and beyond is part of what drives the translational mission of the UPMC Eye Center’s research, according to Dr. Sahel. “We should never lose patient focus. Everything we develop must be seen through the lens of how it’s going to affect patients and be implemented as soon and as safely as possible,” he explains.

His patient-centric vision echoes the frustrations he felt as a young doctor in Strasbourg in the 1980s over the lack of therapies for age-related blindness. Decades later and now a world-renowned leader in groundbreaking vision research, treatment, and technology, he still makes time to sees patients. “It’s a core part of who I am.”