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APRIL 27 , 2008
  Labs, Love, and . . . a Vision

Penn Doctors’ Enduring Partnership Leads to Sight for the Blind


The collaboration that paved the way for this week’s announcement of a breakthrough gene therapy treatment for blindness began more than 20 years ago in a medical school lab. As a young Jean Bennett and Al Maguire – now both faculty members in the department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine -- carefully tunneled through a human brain together during their first-year anatomy class, chemistry sparked between the pair.

Jean Bennett and Al Maguire

Jean Bennett and Al Maguire

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He made her laugh, with a brainy, dry wit that left others wondering when he was telling a joke and when he was being serious. Two years later, the pair married, and they capped off their Harvard Medical School careers with a special project – the birth of their first child.

During those early years together, the two doctors dreamed big about their plans for the future. Maguire focused on building a career in ophthalmology, specializing in retinal degeneration. And Bennett, who also earned a doctorate in cell and developmental biology at the University of California at Berkeley, turned toward her background in basic science. Intrigued by animal models of these eye diseases, and early gene therapy work she’d seen in a mentor’s lab at the National Institutes of Health, she and Maguire began to ask “what if?”, thinking of ways to combine their respective passions. It was still a pie-in-the-sky fantasy -- this notion of somehow delivering corrected genes to make the blind see -- but soon, the roots of the science began to spread.

“In the next couple years, it became clear that it even though it was still fantasy, it was becoming more and more realistic,” Bennett says.

By 1992, the couple landed at Penn, where Maguire combined his clinical work with the genetic research they built during a year Bennett spent working in a makeshift lab filled with improvised tools at the Michigan hospital where Maguire completed a fellowship.  In 2001, they hit a huge milestone in their pursuit, by leading a team that developed a gene therapy protocol to restore sight in a dog afflicted with a severe retinal degeneration that, in humans, renders infants permanently blind.

Now, the latest breakthrough Bennett, Maguire and their colleagues have demonstrated shows that this gene therapy can be used to safely restore vision in human subjects. They detail their success in three young adults this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Despite the research’s huge imprint on their professional lives, the couple says they try to limit shop talk at home – the dinner table, for one, is sacred space reserved for other topics – and they also share a love of outdoor pursuits and the arts. Bennett plays the piano, and Maguire is an oil painter, and they count among their family members an adopted seeing eye dog and the tiny birds that hatch in their aviary. The couple has three children, ages 22, 21 and 18.
In all things, however, their shared passion for helping the visually impaired propels them forward. The ups and downs of bench science don’t deter Bennett, and Maguire continually poses new ideas of how to measure progress in their work. When it’s slow-going, there’s the wonder of seeing their patients cope with incredible adversity – to photograph tiny items in a museum, blow the images up and hold them close to their face to see, for instance, or behold the spectacular colors of floral blooms at the Philadelphia Flower show despite failing conventional tests for color vision – that keeps them focused on the dream that ignited so many years ago.

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