Eye donations help UM researchers fight disease

Martin Slagter
Ann Arbor News

Ann Arbor — When Coleen Anegon’s husband, Tim, received a liver donation as a patient at University Hospital in 2014, she immediately felt indebted to the donor who gave him the gift of life.

Patrice Fort, Ph.D., research assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences the University of Michigan, right, gives a tour of his lab to Courtney and Coleen Anegon at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center.

She returned the favor when Tim passed away due to complications following the transplant, providing her husband’s body as an organ and tissue donor.

Tim’s daughter, Courtney Anegon, admitted she was disappointed when she heard her father’s eye tissue would be used by researchers working to cure eye diseases instead of going to a specific person. That was until she discovered that tissue could help millions suffering from diabetic eye disease.

“It just seemed so insignificant compared to receiving a whole organ,” Courtney Anegon said. “We do realize from learning from you guys today, to impact someone’s quality of life is huge, in ways that we can’t even begin to understand.”

On Aug. 10, the Anegons met with Dr. Patrice Fort, whose laboratory at the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center researches the cellular changes that can lead to diabetic eye disease, to better understand how Tim’s donation will have an impact on its recipients.

The connection between Fort and the Anegons was arranged by Eversight, a global nonprofit organization that restores sight and prevents blindness. Eversight aims to connect families of individuals who donated eye tissue with researchers working to cure eye diseases.

Courtney Anegon holds a family photo showing her father Tim, while at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center in Ann Arbor.

According to UM, more than 32 million people worldwide are blind and another 200 million suffer from moderate to severe visual impairment.

That makes donations like the one Tim Anegon provided significant in helping better understand the causes of diabetic eye disease, which is the leading cause of vision impairment among working-age adults.

Fort said the main goal of research is to understand how diseases occur as well as how to help treat them.

“A lot of the research being done on animal and cell models still teaches a lot, but we’re missing that link in translating to the human pathology,” Fort told the family. “Having those tissues from human donors is key because now what we can do is take any finding in our pre-clinical models we can verify and check them in a human condition.

“It will have an impact for years to come,” Fort added, referring to Anegon’s donation.

Fort said those diagnosed with diabetes will experience some type of issue with their retina during the course of their disease, which causes varying degrees of lost vision.

“They will start losing vision at some point, to some degree,” he said. “For some of them it’s going to be complete blindness, for others it’s going to be a little bit more subtle, but all of them virtually will have problems with their vision.”

Being able to hear about how Fort and UM’s researchers are using tissues like the ones donated by her husband gave Coleen Anegon, a Saginaw resident, a sense of satisfaction.

Describing her husband as a very social man, she found it fitting that his eyes might be used to help the vision of others.

Kellogg Eye Center Research Associate Angela Myers tears up as she hugs Courtney Anegon.

“It’s very comforting,” she said. “When we received the liver donation, we were excited but we immediately knew there was another family that was suffering. So when we donated, it was comforting to us knowing it was going to help someone else.”

Eversight Research Programs Manager Colleen Vrba said connecting donor families with researchers is uncommon. The nonprofit had its first connection around three years ago, leading to the creation of its Hope and Healing Program, which provides researchers with the opportunity to make a connection between the gift of donation and their ongoing work.

Donors don’t need to have perfect vision like some might expect — actually quite the opposite — Vrba said. That’s why educating donors can have a far-reaching impact looking toward the future.

“When people lose their vision because of a condition that they have, their loved ones might think, ‘Oh, you don’t want my husband’s eyes or my father’s eyes, he was blind from diabetic retinopathy,’” Vrba said. “But in fact, that eye tissue that’s affected by that condition is incredibly important in putting it into the hands of researchers who can use that to find different therapies and cures to treat that condition in others later on.”