Gus Bilirakis Pushes ‘Eye-Bonds’ to Help Combat Blindness

By Kevin Derby – Sunshine State News

This week, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., joined U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., in pushing a bill to fund treatments to cure blindness.

Sessions, the chairman of the U.S. House Rules Committee, brought out the “Faster Treatments and Cures for Eye Diseases Act” on Wednesday, insisting it can help the 4.5 million Americans–more than 1 million of them being veterans–who suffer from blindness or impaired vision.

The bill would create a pilot program creating “Eye-Bonds” which the congressmen noted would “finance packages of loans to projects at small labs, universities, and other centers that can’t secure needed funding to help progress their research on treatments and cures for a wide range conditions and causes of severe vision impairment” and claimed “would mobilize as much as $1 billion, with virtually no taxpayer risk.”

Bilirakis’s office offered some insight on how the proposal would work on Thursday.

“Eye-Bonds will help to overcome what’s known as ‘The Valley of death.’ This refers to research that is never translated into treatments to help humans because of funding issues. This legislation would speed treatments across the valley and to the people who need them. The success of the Eye-Bonds will also provide a way to mobilize federal resources that can then be deployed for many other diseases and disabilities, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Many other countries already directly support translational research; the Eye-Bond approach can advance American competitiveness in this critical sector with very limited taxpayer risk,” the congressman’s office noted.

“The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, would be in charge of approving applications for Eye-Bond funding, a provision that ensures selected projects are top quality science and free of conflicts of interests. Taxpayers would be paid off before investors, a unique way to ensure that Eye-Bonds have virtually no cost to the federal deficit,” Bilirakis’ office added.

“Eye-Bonds would pioneer a new way to bring long-term, low-risk private investors into the biomedical arena that should cost the taxpayer virtually nothing,” Sessions said. “Translational biomedical research advances the initial, basic research taxpayers fund into the cures and treatments private companies develop and patients need. However, this research often takes years of clinical trials and testing, leaving much of the research funded by the government on the shelf instead of out in the clinic. There are times when the private sector needs a push and there is a proper role for the government to play in making these critical advancements — this is one of those instances.”

“I have long been an advocate for those living with a disability, whether it is supporting their access to jobs and a productive and robust quality of life or supporting vital health research, and I know that it is essential that we find new ways to tackle old problems,” said Bishop. “We have had federally funded research sitting on the shelf, waiting for private investors to put it into practice, for far too long. But that has not happened. The Eye Bonds created by this legislation will give this research the boost it needs to help Americans. It has the potential to deliver new treatments for a range of conditions including macular degeneration, glaucoma, blindness caused by diabetes and sickle cell disease, and many others. And this is just the first step, as similar bonds could be created to support groundbreaking research into a host of other conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”

Bilirakis, the vice chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, weighed in on Thursday and pointed to his own personal experience as one of the reasons he was championing this bill.

“As a visually impaired American, I am very proud to support this initiative because it reflects out-of-the box thinking about new ways to spur the development of cures and treatments that could potentially transform lives,” Bilirakis said. “This creative approach to funding innovative treatments to cure blindness holds great promise as a model that can be expanded to support the development of cures for other diseases, which is extremely exciting.”

The Foundation Fighting Blindness, National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research and Blinded Veterans of America are backing the proposal.

The bill was sent to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday. So far, there is no companion legislation over in the U.S. Senate.