His vision: To eradicate blindness

January 26, 2017
Sherwin Isenberg

When Sherwin Isenberg, then a UCLA student, was in Israel during the Six-Day War, he visited Gaza and saw Arab children leading around blind older women and men suffering from trachoma, a preventable and curable disease.

“It was my first encounter with mass blindness,” Isenberg — now Dr. Isenberg, a UCLA professor of ophthalmology — told me as we sat in his office in the Jules Stein Eye Institute. “It still haunts me today.”

Haunted enough to help him choose to specialize in the eye — especially children’s eyes. “It’s the most interesting organ in the body,” he said. “And I love kids.” And he saw that the trachoma infection that caused the blindness was curable and preventable.

“The Israeli army, in its wisdom, put the few L.A. people on a kibbutz [where Isenberg did farm work]. A friend arranged for me to spend a day in Gaza,” Isenberg recalled about his visit.

The summer and the war over, Isenberg returned to UCLA and then went on to medical school, choosing ophthalmology as his field and still remembering the blind people he saw in Gaza. By then, trachoma had been vanquished there. “The Israeli army came in and within a year eradicated trachoma … from Gaza,” Isenberg said. “Did the Israeli army ever get credit for this? Of course not.”

He returned to UCLA as a faculty member at the School of Medicine and, among his other posts there, became chief of ophthalmology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Harbor is a 470-bed county hospital located in Carson that serves the South Bay area. I’ve visited it while reporting on medical care for low-income Angelenos and was impressed by its large, no-frills campus and by the quality of the medical personnel I interviewed. Harbor, said Isenberg, is “a unique blend of county hospital and people doing research. It is a wonderful place to be.”

To Isenberg, medical practice was more than the important function of treating patients. He approached it as a scientist. I asked why. Was it the complexity of the eye and the problems it posed that appealed to his scientific nature?

Sight “is our main way of communication with others,” he replied. “It entails some chemistry, some physics, which I was always interested in. Optics is mostly physics. And it’s the way to take a science and relate it directly to people.”

He specialized in pediatric optometry and began working with the late Leonard Apt, the first pediatric ophthalmologist on the West Coast and a founder of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. They focused on severe eye infections in infants, neonatal conjunctivitis, which causes many thousands of cases of blindness. The infants get infected during delivery, when they are exposed to bacteria or viruses in the mother’s vagina, often from sexually transmitted diseases.

Silver nitrate or antibiotics, Isenberg explained, have long been used against infections. They are applied to the babies’ eyes immediately after birth. But the drugs are too expensive for poor countries. And some infants develop redness and swelling.

Doctors thought a common antiseptic — povidone-iodine or Betadine — might work on eyes if diluted. “Here’s this drug Betadine, been around a long time, sort of obvious but nobody thought of it [for eyes],” Isenberg said.

Doctors tried a diluted form on eye surgery patients and found it worked better than silver nitrate and cost much less. They thought it would help babies in poor communities in the developing world. It worked and the rate of infections plummeted worldwide.

Now Isenberg and his colleagues are turning their attention to the infectious eye disease trachoma. “Trachoma is the No. 1 cause of infectious blindness in the world,” he said, and he believes povidone-iodine “should be effective against trachoma.”

“I have organized a consortium of four universities to look into this project,” he said. “UCLA is the primary one.” The others are UC San Francisco; Hawassa University in Ethiopia; and Tel Aviv University.

Isenberg is seeking a $400,000 grant for the project. LA BioMed, the research support arm of Harbor, is helping secure the grant. Isenberg recently was named an LA BioMed Legend by the organization.

What struck me about Isenberg’s story was that it reflected the international aspect of medical research and other scientific fields. It’s good to remember this in a time when nationalism is growing in the United States and other countries.

“Medicine has become broader,” he said. “We have this wonderful organization, Doctors Without Borders. People go into [medicine] for an altruistic desire, and often the greatest need is outside America.”

That was the case here, where an idea grew from a young man’s visit to Gaza years ago. The idea developed into a treatment, developed at Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Carson and by researchers in India, the Philippines, Ethiopia and other places. Today, it’s preventing blindness around the world.

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