When founded in 1969, the nonprofit known as the Northwest Lions Eye Bank was one of many sources for corneal tissue sponsored by Lions Clubs across the country. Since 2006, however, President and CEO Monty Montoya has led the regional provider now named SightLife to its status as a global leader in the restoration of sight. By its 40th anniversary in 2009, SightLife facilitated the transplantation of 3,621 corneas that year—roughly nine per day. Yet the number seemed to Montoya far too modest when compared with the 10 million blind people worldwide who could be cured. Ninety percent of those, he knew, live in developing countries.
“We had to look at the problem differently,” Montoya says, “to create local solutions that we could rapidly scale up.”
The new approach was to provide tools and best practices to partner organizations in target countries that could develop local tissue supplies and resources. This required bringing aboard new talent that could understand the challenges. One of those key hires was Tim Schottman, a veteran Starbucks executive who had helped develop the data-driven techniques the coffee retailer uses to decide where to open a new store. As SightLife’s chief global officer, he applied those methods to identifying regions where corneal transplant efforts could succeed.
“If you don’t have the infrastructure available [in the target country],” Montoya explains, “you can spend a lot of money and time to get limited results.”
Their analysis identified India as the best prospect. India has the largest number of people with curable corneal blindness of any nation—an estimated 2.5 million individuals. With well-developed medical facilities and skills, India already performs around 17,000 corneal transplants each year; Schottman’s analysis suggests the country has the surgical capacity to perform six times as many. By midsummer 2011, all of SightLife's international partners (nine in India, one in Nepal and one in Paraguay), had facilitated 5,622 corneal transplants.
Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle
With a staff approaching 400 and a budget exceeding $40 million, Seattle Biomed has fully realized the potential envisioned in 1976 when Ken Stuart started a small nonprofit in Issaquah to research infectious diseases. More important, it has produced outstanding results. Breakthroughs include using an innovative approach—gene deletion—to create a new malaria vaccine, devising a method to show how long-term nonprogressors are able to control HIV infection without anriretroviral therapy, and implementing a systems biology approach helping scientists to predict whether a drug or vaccine will work before starting expensive human trials. — Steve Wehrly
Infectious Disease Research Institute, Seattle
IDRI tackles global health problems by developing vaccines and creating simple, accurate and cost-effective diagnostic tools and treatments for individuals suffering diseases of poverty. Its product-based approach to health care is part of a global movement toward translational medicine, which blurs the line between basic and applied research. Translational medicine and IDRI’s work emphasize cross-disciplinary collaboration and parlaying research into meaningful outcomes. These outcomes run the gamut from screening procedures for the United States blood supply to vaccines for black fever, tuberculosis and leprosy, all of which have attracted the attention of the international health community. — Sarah Dewey