- Alexandra Clough Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
More than a decade ago, the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute had its eye on an idea to build a center for research and clinical trials.
Back in 2004, the renowned eye center from Miami wasn’t certain what type of vision research to pursue. But Bascom Palmer knew it should prepare, so when it built its new Palm Beach Gardens campus in 2006, one of three buildings was left empty in preparation for the right time to act.
That time is now. The institute is seeking $15 million in donations to build out the Center for Retinal and Macular Degeneration Research and Innovation, at 7101 Fairway Drive, at the northeast corner of PGA Boulevard and Interstate 95.
The project not only is a major step forward for treatment and research conducted by Bascom Palmer, which is part of the University of Miami.
The center also signals the degree to which Palm Beach County has become a place of collaborative research, said Dr. Eduardo Alfonso, Bascom Palmer chairman.
“I foresee Palm Beach County becoming a national center for medical care,” Alfonso said.
Alfonso said Bascom Palmer already collaborates with Scripps Florida and Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience in Jupiter on some of its clinical trials. It’s a relationship envisioned as far back as 2003 by a University of Miami medical school dean, who wanted to look at research that could be translated to real clinical situations.
Today, Bascom Palmer patients participate in a number of clinical trials using breakthrough technologies, including gene and stem-cell therapies.
Greater advances are around the corner, especially with the help of the scientists at Scripps and Max Planck. Indeed, the presence of these renowned research institutions was a factor in deciding to put the research center in Palm Beach Gardens. “The best results happen when you have multiple teams of people working together,” Alfonso said.
Alfonso expects Bascom Palmer will raise the $15 million needed to start the research center in about a year, with construction slated to take another year to 18 months on the 30,000-square-foot research center.
Alfonso said he will hire more than a dozen of the finest clinical scientists to work at the Palm Beach Gardens research facility. Money is needed not only for the initial clinic build-out, but also to keep these clinical trials going
Bascom Palmer’s move is a boon for Palm Beach County’s efforts to boost its medical profile. During the past few years, Palm Beach County has moved from a sleepy second-rate provider of medical services to a health care destination. World-class medical centers as NYU Langone, Mount Sinai of New York, the Hospital for Special Surgery of New York, and the Cleveland Clinic have established or expanded facilities in the county.
Palm Beach County’s generous philanthropists are a lure for these medical providers — and the key to opening up clinics to treat them. For Bascom Palmer, most of the money for its expansion, including the Palm Beach Gardens campus, came from grateful patients and generous donors.
“We would not be in Palm Beach if it had not been for philanthropy,” Alfonso said.
With the growth of these name-brand health care providers, Palm Beach County is turning into an “epicenter” of health care excellence, with a growing infrastructure of both treatment and research, Alfonso said.
Bascom Palmer’s history is evidence.
The University of Miami has had a presence in Palm Beach Gardens since 1996. In 2006, it opened its current facility, a 7.4-acre campus that cost $22 million to build.
Today, Bascom Palmer not only treats Palm Beach County patients for a variety of eye diseases and conditions. It also counts local residents who are enrolled in its clinical trials exploring new methods of treating macular degeneration, a condition caused by genetics, age, and external factors, such as ultra-violet light or smoking. The degeneration of the macula, in the center of the retina providing the keenest vision, is the leading cause of severe vision impairment and blindness among Americans aged 60 and older.
With Palm Beach County’s older population, the problem is widespread and sometimes is a harbinger of other age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. That’s why the research and clinical trials performed by Bascom Palmer are so important, Alfonso said.
The retina is an extension of the central nervous system, a peek into the brain visible through the eye. It’s the same degeneration of the macula that can indicate degeneration of the brain and Alzheimer’s, which also is a degeneration of the central nervous system, Alfonso said.
For example, Bascom Palmer is conducting a clinical trial analyzing data from a special type of test that looks at the nerve fiber layer of the retina, Alfonso said. The test is designed to pick up changes, and it’s possible it could one day be used to evaluate the progress of patients with early forms of Alzheimer’s disease, Alfonso said.
Importantly, residents of Palm Beach County are more open to clinical trials than patients in Miami-Dade County, where Bascom Palmer is headquartered. Alfonso said Palm Beach County-based patients understand that clinical trials are not “guinea pig” experiments, but rather treatments using the latest research available.