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Eyeing the Prize

The University of California, Irvine, is halfway through a fundraising goal to build an eye treatment and research institute.

UC Irvine has raised some $29 million to build the first phase of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute and equip two of its four floors.

Professors at the institute are set to treat patients, teach students and do research in collaboration with device and drug companies.

“We’re halfway there, despite the challenging economy,” said Roger Steinert, a UCI ophthalmology professor and the institute’s director.

The goal is to break ground next summer with an eye on a 2012 opening, he said.

Overall, the university is going to need about $60 million to build the institute, Steinert said. He called that a “very soft number” with fluctuations in construction costs.

Donated Land

The University of California donated the land on Bison Avenue for the institute. No state money is being used for building and equipment costs, he said.

“We must raise 100% of the money from philanthropy,” Steinert said.

The institute has support from some of the big players in Orange County that want to create a larger hub for eye drugs here. There are some 45 medical technology companies related to vision here, according to Steinert.

Some of the institute’s backers include UCI Chancellor Michael Drake, an ophthalmologist by training; James Mazzo, senior vice president of Santa Ana-based Abbott Medical Optics Inc., part of Abbott Laboratories; and Gavin Herbert, chairman emeritus of Irvine drug maker Allergan Inc. and the institute’s namesake.

The group updated members of the Chancellor’s Club, a UCI support group, on its progress during a meeting last month at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach.

“We have the best ophthalmologists in the world right here,” Mazzo said.

That’s why OC needs to have “one of the finest” eye institutes, he said.

Mazzo is chair of the institute’s steering committee.

UCI’s ophthalmology department, which will be housed in the institute, now has 14 faculty members and another seven professor-track, full-time researchers, Steinert said. There also are about 50 volunteer faculty members, he said.

Reaching Out

The Herbert institute is the first named eye institute to be built in some 30 years, according to Steinert.

For donations and guidance, it’s drawing on OC’s thriving crop of businesses that develop medical devices or drugs to treat eyes.

Some of the companies here include Abbott Medical, a maker of eye surgery devices, lasers and contact lens solutions; Alcon Inc., which has some 785 workers in an eye surgical device facility in Irvine; and Allergan, whose main focus was eye drugs when it moved to the county in the early 1960s.

Alcon Foundation has provided a multiyear grant to the Herbert institute, spokeswoman Melissa Mota said.

And Bausch & Lomb Inc., which has an eye surgical device operation in Aliso Viejo, has supported the institute for the past two years, spokesman Michael McDougall said from the company’s Rochester, N.Y., headquarters.

In an earlier interview, UCI professor George Baerveldt, a member of the institute’s steering committee and faculty, said he was looking early on to establish a strong link between the institute and eye drug and device developers.

Baerveldt came to UCI to develop an implant for treating glaucoma.

The device, the Baerveldt implant, is sold through Abbott Medical.

Steinert called the relationship between the institute and eye health companies “vital.”

Some of the county’s eye device and drug heavy hitters are deeply involved with the institute, including Mazzo, who also chairs the UC Irvine Foundation, and William Link, a managing director in the Newport Beach office of Versant Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on healthcare.

The institute’s steering committee also includes Ron Kurtz, a UCI professor and cofounder of Irvine eye laser maker IntraLase Corp., which eventually was bought by what now is Abbott Medical, and Scott Whitcup, Allergan’s executive vice president of research and development.

The Herbert institute is one of the latest examples of UCI reaching out to local medical device and drug makers.

UCI’s biomedical engineering department, which was started seven years ago, has an advisory board that includes several local executives from device makers.

They include Ken Charhut, chief executive of Lake Forest heart device maker Orqis Medical Corp.; J. Andy Corley, corporate vice president and global president of Bausch’s surgical division; Robert Grant, president of Allergan’s Allergan Medical unit; and Stanton Rowe, corporate vice president of advanced technology for Irvine heart valve maker Edwards Lifesciences Corp.

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