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Utah Lions Eye Bank Celebrates 50 Years of Giving the Gift of Sight

Chris Hanna is director of the ULEB.
Chris Hanna is director of the ULEB.

The John A. Moran Eye Center’s nonprofit Utah Lions Eye Bank (ULEB) recently celebrated 50 years of working with eye tissue donors and their families to provide corneal tissue for sight-restoring transplants and eye disease research.

Donor families, transplant recipients, and ophthalmologists gathered at the ULEB in September 2022 for a celebration featuring educational tours, food trucks, and games.

“The celebration allowed us to extend our personal thanks to families of tissue donors who have provided hope to thousands of people and share our state-of-the-art facility and process,” says ULEB Director Chris Hanna. “Our coordinators work 24/7 to provide sensitive, timely service, so it was a great opportunity to give people an inside view of what we do.”

ULEB donors give the gift of sight in two ways:

  • Tissue donation for cornea transplants. This common and effective procedure restores vision for people with certain corneal diseases, such as keratoconus, or damage to the cornea from injury or infection.
  • Tissue donation of healthy and diseased eyes for research. ULEB supplies eye tissue to world-class researchers developing innovative treatments for various blinding eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Research on human tissue allows scientists—including those developing AMD therapies at Moran’s Sharon Eccles Steele Center for Translational Medicine (SCTM)—to investigate disease progression, genetics, and potential new therapies.

The ULEB serves Utah and Idaho as well as patients domestically and internationally. Since Lions Clubs International members founded the ULEB in 1972, it has provided more than 20,000 grafts of corneal tissue to rest

Janice Evans and Mark Mifflin, MD
Grateful for years of vision-saving care that included four cornea transplants, Janice Evans, left, nominated Mark Mifflin, MD, for a national award. Her nomination and story led the National Keratoconus Foundation to name Mifflin its 2022 Top Doc.

A Grateful Patient Honors Her Physician

By the time Janice Evans met Moran’s Mark Mifflin, MD, in 2013, she had a long history of eye problems.

Doctors diagnosed Evans with keratoconus, a potentially blinding corneal disease, at age 11. Now 70, she has had four cornea transplants (three of them in her right eye).

Keratoconus affects one in every 2,000 Americans and is the most common reason for a cornea transplant. The disease causes the cornea, the clear, dome-shaped window in front of the eye, to slowly thin and develop a cone shape over time. Because the cornea focuses light into the eye, the condition causes light rays to go out of focus, blurring and distorting vision. It makes daily activities, such as reading or driving, difficult.

“Keratoconus requires patients to be adaptive and resilient,” explains Mifflin. “It often starts in the late teens or early 20s, but symptoms slowly progress over 10 to 20 years. We can often correct a patient’s vision with glasses or special contact lenses, and the cornea will stabilize. Still, in about 10% to 20% of people, the cornea will eventually become too scarred or will not tolerate a contact lens. If either of these problems occur, we may need to do a transplant.”

A Long & Winding Road to Good Vision

Evans’ keratoconus diagnosis did not come as a surprise. Her father and half of her siblings also have some form of the condition.

Evans could not see with eyeglasses and has worn some form of rigid contact lenses for nearly 60 years. Before her diagnosis, Evans loved playing softball and basketball. She had to stop playing sports as her sight deteriorated.

She worked editing news film during college and later as a broadcast news producer at KSL-TV News in Salt Lake City. By age 21, fuzzy vision in her right eye made reading impossible, and she had her first cornea transplant.

Six years later, she needed a cornea transplant in her left eye and had to turn down an offer to work for CBS News. However, the network waited for her eye to heal and hired her as a producer in the Chicago bureau. She then worked in the Washington, D.C., bureau before returning to KSL.

Cornea transplants can fail for various reasons, including rejection of the donor cornea or other complications. By 2009, Evans had a second cornea transplant in her right eye. By 2013, she needed a third and final one in that eye.

“I liked Dr. Mifflin right away,” she says. “Since it was my third time with that eye, I asked him, ‘How many at-bats do I get?’ He was so kind and direct. Without missing a beat, he told me he has one patient who’s had six. I felt confident with him; he really eased my anxiety. You’re awake when they do the surgery, so I could tell he was a solid leader working with a great team.”

Mifflin has helped Evans manage her vision since that time. When the National Keratoconus Foundation (NKCF) solicited nominations for 2022 honors, Evans drew on her recent years of experience and deep gratitude to nominate Mifflin. Her story led the NKCF to name him its 2022 Top Doc.

Today, Evans wears rigid scleral contact lenses, lives independently, can drive, and enjoys cooking and reading.

As director of Moran’s Cornea and Refractive Division, chief of surgical services, and associate medical director of the ULEB, Mifflin has a unique perspective on the importance of corneal tissue donation.

“We could not restore sight to patients like Janice without tissue donated through the eye bank,” he says. “This is a life-changing surgery for patients with corneal diseases that span almost all decades of their life. I have greatly appreciated my long association with patients, families, and with the donors who make it possible to keep on trying and, in most cases, succeeding.”

Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen.
Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen.

WW2 'Candy Bomber' Donates Eyes For Research

Not all tissue donated to ULEB is used to restore vision. Tissue donated for research can have an equally significant impact for future patients.

Recently deceased, Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen donated his eyes to the ULEB. The Utahn lived by the principles described by family members as “service before self, attitude, gratitude, and that little things add up to big things.”

Better known as “The Candy Bomber,” Halvorsen played a vital role as a pilot in World War II’s Berlin Airlift, supplying food and other crucial supplies to civilians on the ground in West Berlin. One day, after he shared a few sticks of gum with a group of local children and saw the joy they took in that small offering, he made it his mission to add packets of gum and chocolate to his airdrops. The idea soon took on a life of its own, bringing comfort to thousands of children.

That spirit of giving back lives on through the corneas Halvorsen donated to research upon his passing at age 101 in 2022.

“Whatever a donor’s age and the quality of their vision, each and every donation to research makes a difference in our efforts to translate scientific discoveries into treatments for blinding eye diseases,” says Gregory S. Hageman, PhD, executive director of Moran’s SCTM.

A longtime partnership with the ULEB has helped the SCTM develop the world’s largest donor eye tissue repository dedicated to research, with 10,000 pairs of eyes available for scientists to compare healthy and diseased tissue. As a result, the SCTM has made groundbreaking discoveries related to AMD—a common blinding disease among Americans age 55 and older.

The number of Americans with AMD is expected to grow to 40 million by 2050.

Since there are no animal models to study AMD, scientists work with donated human ocular tissue to research the biology of the disease.

“Without donations to research, we would not have made such rapid progress toward a gene therapy we have in clinical trials to treat a prevalent form of AMD,” Hageman says. “Colonel Halvorsen did incredible things with his life. He gave and gave, and then when he passed away, he gave once again. We could not be more honored that he chose to donate to the ULEB and SCTM.”

Says Halvorsen’s daughter Denise Williams: “My father focused on helping others during his life, and he saw eye tissue donation as another way to continue to do that, even in death.”

Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen's daughter, Denise Williams and her grandchildren
Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen's daughter, Denise Williams brought her grandchildren to an open house in September 2022 celebrating the ULEB's 50th anniversary.