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Philanthropists reflect on the eye institute they helped build

Posted: 2024-01-11

Source: UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute Shine the Light
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Nearly two-thirds of people over age 65 experience vision problems such as cataracts, glaucoma or age-related macular degeneration. Gavin and Ninetta Herbert are no exception. They both see ophthalmologists at the eye institute that bears his name.

In the 10 years since the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute opened its doors, it has flourished, treating 75,000 patients this year and delivering nearly 5,000 eye surgeries in the state-of-the-art building on the university campus in Irvine. The Herberts say the care they receive is top-notch.

“The thing I’m most proud of about the eye institute is the reputation it has developed in the community,” says Gavin Herbert. “The feedback I get continually about the eye institute from people I meet is very, very positive. It’s really quite impressive, everything the whole team is doing.”

A longtime vision

Seen by many as the father of Orange County’s thriving ophthalmic industry, Gavin Herbert co-founded the pharmaceutical company Allergan and brought it to Irvine in 1966, just as the University of California opened a new campus on land that had been part of the historic Irvine Ranch.

He helped recruit internationally renowned glaucoma researcher Irving Leopold, MD, as founding chair of the UCI School of Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology, bringing instant prestige to the fledgling program. In the 1970s, Herbert and Leopold talked about creating an institute focused on eye research, but the idea lay dormant until the mid-2000s, when dozens of ophthalmic startups sprouted in Orange County.

It was then that Herbert protégé Jim Mazzo — who worked at Allergan for two decades before taking the helm of Advanced Medical Optics — rallied the community to fund a world-class eye institute in Irvine. Corporations and local philanthropists generously donated $40 million toward the effort, including a $10 million naming gift from Herbert’s mother, Josephine Gleis.

Gleis had her own connection to the eye institute: She was treated for macular degeneration by Baruch Kuppermann, MD, PhD, now chair of the ophthalmology department and director of the eye institute. “Certainly a key to the success of the eye institute was the original vision and leadership of Dr. Roger Steinert, and then Barry Kuppermann stepped in and has also done a wonderful job,” says Gavin Herbert. “We’ve been very fortunate to have two terrific leaders to move this project ahead.”


Since the opening of the eye institute in 2013, Gavin and Ninetta Herbert have continued to support UCI’s excellence in ophthalmology by funding two endowed chairs: the Irving H. Leopold Chair and the Roger F. Steinert, MD, Endowed Chair.

They have also made major gifts to support retina research and vaccine development, the latter of which is of particular interest to Gavin Herbert for its parallels to the development of Allergan’s most famous product, Botox.

Initially developed as a highly effective treatment for blepharospasm, or twitchy eyelids, Botox now is used to treat dozens of conditions, ranging from migraines to cerebral palsy, although it is best known for its cosmetic applications.

He sees a similarly happy accident in a vaccine being developed by ophthalmology professor Lbachir BenMohamed, director of the eye institute’s Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology.

BenMohamed’s work on a vaccine for a different virus is now a promising prospect for a pan-coronavirus vaccine — one that could stand up to the continually evolving variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as many other coronaviruses.

“That a vaccine to save us from future coronavirus pandemics may emerge from an ophthalmic lab is true serendipity,” Herbert says.

Next generation

While Gavin Herbert focuses on research breakthroughs, Ninetta Herbert’s heart is with saving the vision of the next generation.

“The greatest gift in the world is vision,” she says.

As a founding member of the Visionaires, she helps lead a group of community members who support the institute’s Eye Mobile for Children. This ophthalmology office on wheels visits local schools and has provided free vision screenings to more than 20,000 children across Orange County.

“Many places don’t test children’s eyes anymore, even though we know it’s critically important,” says Ninetta Herbert. “We have to help screen children, because if certain vision problems aren’t identified before the age of six, it’s harder to treat them.“

Through the Eye Mobile for Children, the Visionaires hope to reach more children whose future may be permanently affected without early intervention.

The Herberts also hope to engage a younger generation of local leaders, including parents who may not yet be experiencing the vision problems common with aging, but who care about the eyesight and health of their children and the entire community.

They hope the new generation will champion eye care excellence in Orange County, ensuring that UCI continues its trajectory as one of the world’s leading centers for eye care and groundbreaking research. Already, the couple is laying the groundwork for future success by helping to raise funds to build a collaborative ophthalmology research space in the Falling Leaves Foundation Medical Innovation Building, which is under construction next to the eye institute.

“The community has been wonderful about supporting the eye institute over the years,” says Gavin Herbert. “We look forward to their participation in exciting new projects, as well.”