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In $25M Gift, Casino Mogul Bets on Blindness Cure

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn will donate $25 million to the University of Iowa to accelerate the search for cures to rare eye diseases including the one that hampers his own vision, the school announced Thursday.

The donation, to be paid over five years, will support the Institute for Vision Research, will be renamed in honor of the billionaire chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts Ltd. The institute is a leader in genetic testing for eye disease and seeks to develop gene and stem cell therapies that could restore vision.

Wynn, 71, has retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that affects one in 4,000 people and causes night blindness and weakness in peripheral vision. A fixture at Las Vegas galas, he’s often seen leaning on an aide’s arm at nighttime events.

“As a person who knows firsthand what it is like to lose vision from a rare inherited eye disease, I want to do everything I can to help others who are similarly affected,” he said in a statement. “I am thrilled by the pace of the scientific progress that has occurred in the past few years and I feel that the prospect of finding a cure is possible and probable in the short term and certain in the long term.”

University President Sally Mason announced the “inspirational” donation during a Thursday meeting of the Board of Regents.

Wynn, a University of Pennsylvania alum, has no prior ties to Iowa. But he and a longtime associate, Steve Dezii, who directs Wynn’s foundation, have long supported eye research and are acquainted with many top scientists, including institute director Ed Stone.

The institute offers genetic testing worldwide and has developed expertise in discovering and understanding mutations that cause retinitis pigmentosa and other diseases. The institute aims to use that knowledge to develop gene therapies, including transplanting corrected genes into eye tissue.

Researchers are working out how to restore vision for those with advanced disease by growing photoreceptor cells from adult stem cells that could be transplanted into their eyes. Stone said that the institute has learned how to grow the cells and that testing on mice has been encouraging. He said he believed such treatment could be available within a decade.

Wynn’s donation is double the institute’s annual $12 million budget. The institute, which has 30 faculty and 100 staff, is expected to double its laboratory space and hire 10 new faculty from among the brightest in the field, Stone said.

“We want to … translate that money into effective treatments as fast as we can,” he said.

Dezii said he has visited the institute several times in the last two years, and that he and Wynn believe that a gift could accelerate breakthroughs. The donation will benefit those suffering from so-called orphan disorders, which are so rare that researchers typically do not focus on them, and will allow scientists to carry out multiple experiments at once rather than one after another.

“Time is our worst enemy,” Dezii said.

Wynn’s deteriorating sight has caused problems. In 2006, he damaged a Pablo Picasso painting called “Le Reve” shortly after he had agreed to sell it for a record $139 million. Wynn was showing the painting to guests when he struck the painting with his elbow, tearing a silver-dollar-sized hole in the canvas. In March, he sold the restored painting for $155 million.

A $135 million Wynn Resorts donation to a university in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau came under scrutiny for coinciding with Wynn’s request for land to develop a third casino. Wynn denied the gift constituted a bribe, and the SEC concluded its investigation last month without taking any enforcement action.

Wynn doesn’t own any Iowa casinos and has no business ventures planned in the state, Dezii said.

AP reporter Hannah Dreier contributed from Las Vegas.

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