Dr. Roger Steinert
Gavin Herbert Eye Institute director Dr. Roger Steinert photo: Steve Zylius/UCI

Visitors walking through the front doors of the gleaming, new Gavin Herbert Eye Institute building at UC Irvine quickly discover that there’s never been a vision care center in Orange County quite like it.

Greeting them in the towering atrium lobby is a suspended, dichroic glass art installation that reflects and transmits sunlight in spectral colors. The piece, created by artist Ed Carpenter, captures the essence and mission of the institute: to “Shine the Light” (the name of the artwork) on the most advanced treatments and research to preserve and improve vision and eye health.

“It’s a stunning place,” says Dr. Roger Steinert, the Irving H. Leopold Chair in Ophthalmology and founding director of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute. “We’re very fortunate to have an impressive, functional building that conveys the importance of what we’re doing and the substance of who we are.”

The range of patient services offered within its glass walls dwarfs that provided by all but a few eye institutes in the U.S. The 70,000-square-foot structure holds an ambulatory

surgery center with two operating suites and a laser cataract procedure room; an 8,000-square-foot eye clinic with multiple laser procedure rooms and state-of-the-art diagnostic imaging technology; a translational clinical research center for innovative therapy trials; 34 examination rooms; a LASIK refractive surgery center; an optical shop and optometry services; an oculofacial plastic surgery center, faculty offices and conference space. The facility also boasts Braille Institute-recommended interior design features to maximize ease of use by visually impaired patients.

While the building’s construction took only a couple of years, the idea for it goes back to the mid-1970s, when Allergan Inc. founder and then-chairman Gavin Herbert brought world-renowned ocular pharmacologist Dr. Irving Leopold to Orange County to work at his company. The two helped found UC Irvine’s Department of Ophthalmology, with Leopold (who died in 1993) serving as its first chair.

“Although the department was just getting off the ground, we had a vision of building an eye institute,” Herbert recalls. “So it’s been a long time coming.”

With Allergan as one of its most well-known companies, Orange County has grown into a vision care industry powerhouse with one of the highest concentrations of ophthalmic technology companies in the world. And in the late 1990s, led by Jim Mazzo, then president and CEO of Advanced Medical Optics, this industry community partnered with UC Irvine to make Herbert and Leopold’s vision come into focus.

At the request of Dr. Peter McDonnell, then chair of the ophthalmology department, Mazzo convened a steering committee tasked with building a premier eye center. Meeting monthly, the group – comprising UC Irvine ophthalmologists and industry and community leaders – laid the foundation for the creation of the institute.

“The committee still exists today,” says Mazzo, now an operating partner with Newport Beach-based Versant Ventures. “At the end of the day, you can get a lot done with enthusiasm, but in the long term, it dies without passion. And we continue to have many passionate, committed people who have been dedicated to building the institute.”

The drive to create an eye center gathered steam with the 2004 recruitment of Steinert, a Harvard University eye surgeon world-renowned for advancing the use of laser technologies to repair complex vision problems.

“Seeing the commitment to building the institute was a huge component of what made UC Irvine attractive to me,” Steinert says. “It was exciting to be part of an important effort to treat eye disease.”

Soon after he arrived, the Department of Ophthalmology started the UC Irvine Eye Institute on the second floor of the Gottschalk Medical Plaza, and then-Chancellor Ralph Cicerone approved a site for the center in a sagebrush-filled field near the corner of Bison and California avenues, adjacent to School of Medicine research buildings.

Although it took nearly a decade to design, fund, construct and open the $39 million facility, it’s noteworthy for being the first on the UC Irvine campus paid for entirely through local corporate, foundation and individual philanthropic gifts; no government or university money was involved.  (The institute’s clinic at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange will remain.)

“This is a crowning achievement in Orange County,” Mazzo says. “There are a lot of firsts here: It’s Orange County’s first premier eye center, and it’s the first that was privately funded. This is something created over many years with many personal commitments of time, energy and resources. We had to step up, and we did.”

No one stepped up more than Herbert, who with his wife, Ninetta, and mother, Josephine Herbert Gleis, donated $10 million to the effort in 2007. For that and his considerable contributions to UC Irvine ophthalmology and the vision care industry, the institute was named in his honor.

“I’m delighted that we will finally have an eye institute at UC Irvine,” Herbert says. “Orange County has become the research center for ophthalmology products, and the new eye institute is an important addition that will enhance clinical research in the development of new products. In turn, this will create jobs.”

Other major donors include Abbott Medical Optics Inc., the Alcon Foundation, the Allergan Foundation, Julia and George Argyros, the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Foundation, Bausch & Lomb, Esther and James Cavanaugh, the Discovery Eye Foundation, the Kratz Foundation, Marsha and Bill Link, and Kelly and Jim Mazzo.

Along with providing unparalleled patient care, the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute hosts the work of UC Irvine ophthalmology researchers, who are known for pioneering next-generation medical therapies for age-related macular degeneration and such medical procedures as refractive and corneal transplant surgery using femtosecond lasers. Research groups are involved in myriad projects, including those to create infused contact lenses that replace eye drops to treat cystinosis and a vaccine for ocular herpes, a leading cause of blindness.

“Seeing the commitment to building the institute was a huge component of what made UC Irvine attractive to me.”

In addition, the institute’s location near the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center is accelerating the effort by Dr. Henry Klassen’s team to test and advance stem cell-based therapies to preserve and restore sight for individuals with retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration.

Steinert says that the institute also will foster collaborations with vision care companies to develop and try out new drug treatments and ocular devices. The goal, he adds, is that the facility be a regional hub of educational, research and clinical activities.

“There’s no question that we will be in a much stronger position,” Steinert says. “To get to this point has taken a whole lot of work, and it’s been incredibly emotionally and intellectually satisfying. To now have a major center for eye care will mean a lot to Orange County.”

Originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of UCI Magazine