In the Rare Air

This article first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Wilmer, the magazine of the Wilmer Eye Institute.

The Merlau family’s support for the age-related macular degeneration research of Jim Handa, M.D., is a “tribute,” Handa says, to “altruism.”

At a world-class eye center like the Wilmer Eye Institute, it is not unusual for grateful patients to become donors. But those patients often have a personal stake in the research they choose to fund. This is not the case with Jo and Ken Merlau of Winnetka, Illinois. Ken has a treatable genetic condition that years ago brought the couple to the care of Wilmer’s Handa.

The Merlaus came to respect Handa and his work so much that they chose to fund his research into a disease that does not currently affect their close-knit family: age-related macular degeneration (AMD). “That’s a very unusual thing for a donor to do,” Handa says, “but age-related macular degeneration is a big problem for a lot of people. It’s a tribute to the Merlaus’ altruism that they have done this.”

AMD is a degradation of the macula, the part of the eye that sees fine detail. With more than 10 million Americans suffering from AMD, it is the leading cause of blindness in those over 60.

The doctor-donor relationship between Handa and the Merlaus goes far beyond research and funding. “I would say it’s become a friendship over the last 20 years since I first met them,” Handa says.

In contrast to Handa’s reserved, professorial demeanor, Jo Merlau is a ball of energy. She speaks quickly in a distinct Chicago accent about why her family chose to fund Handa’s AMD research. “By any objective measure, Wilmer is No. 1 in research, which translates into the most effective clinical care, defining treatment protocols for the future,” Jo Merlau says. “Dr. Handa’s research pioneers potentially game-changing research early on, which we are happy to be a part of.”

The Merlaus’ interest in Handa’s research includes the way Handa has chosen to build a highly diverse team of researchers in his laboratory.

“Somewhere along the way, the Merlaus and I had a conversation about the cultural makeup of the lab,” Handa says. “We agreed that we wanted international representation, and the Merlaus have since funded an international scholarship to further that goal.” Handa proudly says his team includes researchers from China, India, Poland, Venezuela and Nigeria.

“We think medicine has a global impact, and we think it’s important to be inclusive,” Jo Merlau says. “Jim’s reputation has led to the international community finding him. It’s a testament to who Jim Handa is. He attracts the best people to Wilmer from across the world.”

In his AMD research, Handa is pursuing a couple of intriguing avenues by trying to figure out the root mechanisms of the oxidation that kills cells in the retina and causes a loss of vision. “We’re looking at the genes involved in how the retina protects itself from oxidation and how that ability fades as one ages,” Handa says.

While his research holds promise, there are no guarantees, and Handa is reluctant to hype himself or the work. He prefers instead to underpromise and overdeliver. Jo Merlau is less reserved when speaking about Handa himself. “We think Jim Handa is one of the best doctors around, and we want the whole world to know more about him and his research,” she says. “Clinically, intellectually, personally and how he cares about his patients—that became my driving force for giving. He’s in the rare air.”

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Topics: Friends of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Wilmer Eye Institute, Promote and Protect Health