Stem Cell Agency’s Diane Winokur hailed as Visionary

Diane and JT

CIRM Board member Diane Winokur with CIRM Board Chair Jonathan Thomas at FFB Awards dinner

Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of gala dinners. It’s not that I don’t like seeing people who do remarkable things getting a well-deserved honor. It’s just that the dinners often go on too long and the food is usually not very good (hey, this is San Francisco, those things matter). But last night’s Foundation Fighting Blindness Visionary Awards in San Francisco was definitely an exception to that rule.

Academy of Sciences Grand Opening

Academy of Sciences in San Francisco

Now it may be that the awards were held in the spectacular Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park, or that the food was delicious. But I think the real reason is that CIRM Board member Diane Winokur was one of those being honored. The other honoree was Dr. Jacque Duncan, an amazing physician at UC San Francisco who has dedicated her life to battling diseases of the retina. The whole event was deeply emotional, and truly inspiring.

Now, Diane is a remarkable woman in many respects. She’s the Board’s Patient Advocate member for ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis. But Diane also considers herself a Patient Advocate for all Californians and works hard to help advance the research that could help them. She has a personal connection to vision loss as well; one of her dear friends has lost his sight because of retinitis pigmentosa, and his daughter is losing hers because of the same disease.

Diane at podiumDiane highlighted the work that CIRM is doing to help battle vision destroying diseases; how we have invested more than $125 million in 25 different projects. She talked about the encouraging news from clinical trials we are funding targeting retinitis pigmentosa and dry age-related macular degeneration. Diane said:

“These stem cell clinical trials show that progress is being made. Not as fast as we would like, but as everyone here knows, good science takes time. As a patient advocate on the CIRM Board it’s my role to represent the patient, to be their voice in making decisions about what projects to fund.

Patients are at the heart of everything we do at CIRM, from deciding on funding issues to supporting clinical trials. That’s why I feel so honored to get this award. It comes from an organization, that is equally committed to doing all it can to help people in need, to putting the patient at the center of everything they do.”

It’s clear that patients really are at the heart of the work the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) does. As the organizations CEO Benjamin Yerxa said:

“We support 77 labs in the US, often funding projects no one else would. We do this because we know it is necessary to advance the field. And we are going to keep doing this as best we can, as fast as we can, for as long as we can, because we know so many people are depending on us to help them.”

The other honoree, Jacque Duncan, said after attending many previous Visionary Award dinners and seeing the people being honored it was humbling to be in that company. She talked about the exciting progress being made in the field and the people who are making it possible.

“None of this happens by chance. The path to developing new treatments takes the passion of scientists and doctors, and the commitment of patients to raising the funds needed to do this research. One gala dinner at a time, one Vision Walk at a time. All of this creates community and a common purpose. I truly believe that because of this, tomorrow will be brighter than today.”

Perhaps it’s only appropriate to leave the last word to Diane, who ended her speech saying:

“The Nobel prize winning physicist Heinrich Rohrer once said that science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.

I believe that working together, CIRM and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, we can create that new tomorrow.”

A Patient Advocate’s Personal Manifesto

Janni and Obama

President Obama and Janni Lehrer-Stein

Janni Lehrer-Stein was just 26 when she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease and told she was going to be blind within six months. The doctor who gave her the news told her “But don’t worry, people like you are usually hit and killed by a bus long before they go completely blind.”

At the time she was recently married, had just graduated law school and landed her dream job with the government in Washington DC, litigating workplace discrimination. The news about her eyesight stopped her in her tracks.

But not for long. If you ever met Janni you would know that nothing stops her for long.

I was fortunate enough to hear Janni talk at a Foundation Fighting Blindness event in the San Francisco Bay Area last weekend. I was part of a panel discussion on new approaches to treating vision loss, including the research that CIRM is funding.

Janni didn’t talk about stem cells, instead she focused on the importance of the patient advocate voice, community, and their determination. She said one of the most important things anyone battling a life-threatening or life-changing disease or disorder needs to remember is that it’s not about disability, it’s about capability. It’s about what you can do rather than what you cannot.

Janni laid out her “manifesto” for things she says will help you keep that thought uppermost in your mind.

1) Show up. It’s that simple and that important. You have to show up. You have to get educated, you have to learn all you can about your condition so you know what you can do and what you can’t do. You have to share that information with others. You have to be there for others. Don’t just show up for yourself. Show up for others who can’t be there.

2) Share this information. Janni talked about a website called My Retina Tracker which is helping drive research into the causes of retinal diseases like retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration, and hopefully will lead to treatments and even cures. She says the more people work together, the more we combine our resources, the more effective we can be.

3) Support the researchers. Janni says while raising awareness is important, raising money is just as important. Without money there can be no research, and without research no treatments or cures. Janni says it doesn’t matter how you do it – a charity walk, a Go Fund me campaign, petitioning your state or federal elected representatives to urge them to fund research – everything counts, every dollar helps.

4) Remember you are part of a wider community. Janni says no one ever won a battle on their own; it takes a lot of people to fight and win the right to be treated equally. And it takes a lot of effort to stop those rights from being rolled back.

Janni hasn’t let losing her sight hold her back. In 2011, she was appointed by President Obama, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, to the National Council on Disability where she served two terms advising the President and Congress on national disability policy.

Now she has returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area, but she is no less determined to make a difference and no less determined to fight for the rights of patients and patient advocates.

In an article on Medium she shares her feelings about being a patient advocate:

“The America that I so deeply respect is one that embraces, values and respects the contributions of us all. My America includes every one of us, regardless of our gender, race, age or disability. Our America is a place where, regardless of whether we are sighted or blind, we have the same opportunities, for which we are equally considered. Our America includes every one of us who wishes to make the world a more peaceful, responsible, and inclusive environment that is tolerant of all differences and abilities, physical or otherwise. To me, those differences make our lives richer, give our contributions more meaning, and lead to a brighter future for the next generation.”