Hope in sight

Naples couple supports study of potential sight-saving therapy

Robert and Debbie Forbis

Robert and Debbie Forbis

First came despair. Then, hope.

While Robert and Debbie Forbis were still celebrating the birth of their grandson, Taylor, the 2-month-old was diagnosed with optic nerve hypoplasia, a disease in which the optic nerves fail to develop. Taylor’s family grappled with the possibility that the boy might never see their faces.

Hope for a cure came from China, where an experimental procedure using umbilical-cord stem cells was giving children with ONH sight. In the days after Taylor’s diagnosis, the Forbises – founders and owners of Premier Electric, one of Florida’s largest electrical contractors – learned about families who were traveling to China in the hopes that their children could benefit from the procedure. With a $1 million contribution to UF’s College of Medicine’s department of ophthalmology, however, they brought the possibility of a cure that much closer to home for the 5 million patients affected by ONH. Their gift will enable medical scientists to determine if the stem-cell procedure is safe and effective for use in the United States.

The Taylor Forbis Optic Nerve Hypoplasia research fund at the college will allow UF researchers to more rigorously examine in the lab the role of umbilical cord stem cells as potential therapies for children with ONH, said Shalesh Kaushal, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of ophthalmology.

“Many people can’t afford to go to China or don’t want to risk an experimental treatment,” Robert Forbis says. “I hope we’ll be able to do this research quickly, get the treatment approved and start treating children in a few years. The rest of the world could be coming to the University of Florida to get this done.”

Taylor, who turned 1 in June, has made strides without the help of stem-cell therapy. He can see light and shadows, and doctors are optimistic his vision will continue to improve on its own. Nonetheless, the knowledge that UF may be closing in on a cure helps the rest of the Forbis family rest easier.

“I want people to know that there’s hope,” Robert Forbis says. “Don’t despair – there is a cure on the way.”