Gift will allow UF to study potentially sight-saving therapy

From left Dr. Shalesh Kaushal, Robert Forbis, Debbie Forbis and Dr. William Driebe

A $1 million gift to the College of Medicine’s department of ophthalmology will enable University of Florida scientists to study the safety and effectiveness of experimental therapies being used to treat children with a sight-robbing disease.

Robert Forbis and his wife Debbie, founders and owners of Premier Electric, one of Florida’s largest electrical contractors, made their gift to establish the Taylor Forbis Optic Nerve Hypoplasia research fund at the college.

Taylor Forbis, the couple’s grandson, has optic nerve hypoplasia, a blinding disease in which the nerve that transmits signals from the eye to the brain does not develop properly.

Fueled by the donation, UF researchers will work to determine whether treatments practiced in other parts of the world using umbilical cord stem cells are safe and effective for use in the United States.

“This generous gift will allow us to more rigorously examine in the lab the role of umbilical cord stem cells as potential therapies for children with ONH,” said Shalesh Kaushal, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology at the College of Medicine and director of vitreoretinal services.

“We need to prove that using umbilical cord stem cells for ONH is safe, and then get it approved here in the United States,” said Robert Forbis, whose company provides electrical contracting services for the state of Florida from its offices in Naples and Tampa. “My grandson’s vision has improved since he was first born, so he may never need stem cells. But our goal is to eventually bring this treatment into this country.”

Kaushal explained that independent of the research, the department of ophthalmology is also creating a clinic for ONH patients, providing evaluation and treatment for their eye disease and other disorders that may accompany it.

“There is a subset of ONH patients who also have endocrine and metabolic abnormalities,” said Nausheen Khuddus, M.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology who will direct the ONH clinic. “We will operate the clinic in conjunction with UF physicians specializing in pediatric genetics and pediatric endocrinology.”

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, UF President Bernie Machen and College of Medicine officials were on hand May 22 for the announcement of the Forbises’ gift and to acknowledge the importance of private support for academic medicine.