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Dr. Eliot Berson, Pioneer in Vitamin A Therapy for Retinitis Pigmentosa, Passes Away

No one in the retinal disease research community brought more passion and commitment to his or her work than Dr. Eliot Berson. As The William F. Chatlos Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, he dedicated himself to clinical care and vision-saving research for people with inherited retinal diseases for five decades. In addition to being a world-renowned clinical researcher and developer of vitamin A therapy for retinitis pigmentosa, he was beloved by his patients and their families for his hopeful and encouraging attitude toward their challenging, vision-robbing conditions.

Dr. Berson passed away on March 19, 2017, at the age of 79. He is survived by his wife, Kyra, of 35 years, and brother, Dr. Frank Berson.

“Dr. Berson was truly a pioneer. He dedicated himself to inherited retinal diseases when little was known about them, and virtually no other doctors or scientists were focused on research to increase knowledge of these devastating conditions,” says Stephen Rose, PhD, chief research officer, Foundation Fighting Blindness. “He was also always respected for his honesty and openness with patients. He was a genuine personality.”

The Foundation Fighting Blindness — the world’s leading, private, retinal-research nonprofit — was established in 1971 thanks to Dr. Berson’s introduction of Lulie and Gordon Gund to Ben and Beverly Berman. Mr. Gund had lost his vision to RP. The Bermans’ two young daughters, Mindy and Joanne, also had the condition. Shortly after they met, the Gunds and Bermans co-founded the Foundation to drive research for treatments and cures. Since its inception, the Foundation has raised more than $700 million toward its mission of eradicating the entire spectrum of inherited retinal diseases. The Foundation’s first investment created the Berman-Gund Lab for the Study of Retinal Degenerations, directed by Dr. Berson, at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. The lab continues today as a thriving research center.

“Lulie and I met Eliot in the summer of 1970 when he had been referred to us as one of the few clinicians interested in doing research for inherited retinal diseases. After he diagnosed me, I asked him about my prognosis based on my ERG, and he, in his own wonderful way, was very candid with me, that my vision wouldn’t last long,” says Gordon Gund, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Foundation. “In the spring of 1971, I called Eliot to follow up on his research lab proposal to the board of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. He sent me a copy, and a few days later called me to arrange a meeting with Ben Berman. The rest is history.”

“My family and I are grateful for having known Dr. Berson and for considering him as family. He provided us with hope for a cure or treatment for retinitis pigmentosa when there was none,” says Mindy Berman Caplan. “His lifetime commitment to research, his dedication to the Foundation, and his compassion for all his patients is his legacy.”

In 1993, Dr. Berson reported on a groundbreaking vitamin A treatment for retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a leading cause of inherited blindness, in the journal Ophthalmology. Ultimately, his investigations showed that a therapeutic regimen of vitamin A palmitate, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and lutein preserved vision in people with certain forms of RP. He published more than a dozen papers on the nutritional regimen.

Dr. Berson was also renowned for evaluating, tracking, and predicting the course of vision loss in patients using an electroretinogram or ERG to measure the retina’s sensitivity to light. Having conducted and analyzed thousands of ERGs, he was better able to predict the rate of visual decline in his patients.

A graduate of Phillips Andover, Yale, and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Berson authored more than 250 peer-reviewed papers. He has been recognized with awards from the International Society for Genetic Eye Diseases, the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the National Eye Institute, Lighthouse International, Alcon, and the International Society of Eye Research. In 1999, he received the Llura Liggett Gund Award, the Foundation’s top research award, recognizing career achievement.

8 Responses to 'Dr. Eliot Berson, Pioneer in Vitamin A Therapy for Retinitis Pigmentosa, Passes Away'

  1. Carol says:

    A lovely tribute to a truly amazing clinician who changed many lives!

  2. Walford Family says:

    Dr. Berson is our hero. He worked with our family in the late ’60’s. He not only gave us hope for an eventual cure, but also support when dealing with acceptance and independence. We will never forget him, as a person, and for his dedication.

  3. Marcia Wick says:

    I was only in 5th grade (more than 50 years ago) when my family met Dr. Berson at NIH where he diagnosed some of my family members, including me, with RP. In hindsight, I realize Dr. Berson was performing cutting edge research as a fairly young man in his late 20s, early 30s at that time. Even more remarkable is that he continued that research relentlessly for half a century. Dr. Berson has always been my hero simply because of his dogged commitment to help patients with retinal diseases. He helped me and my family tremendously just by believing in a cure. However, he was also a realist. When I called the Berman Gund Lab just a few years back to inquire about a report on a possible treatment involving the injection of “good” genes directly into the eye, Dr. Berson took the time to return my phone call personally to explain why this treatment is not viable for my family’s type of RP, then he arranged for additional information to be mailed to me. Although the news was discouraging, I concluded the call with Dr. Berson feeling full of hope simply because he was still on the job. My name is Marcia Wick, formerly Marcia Walford. Our family was studied and reported on by Dr. Berson for decades. We are full of gratitude for his lifelong dedication to helping families like ours.Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife, brother, colleagues, staff and fellow patients.

  4. Marlene Fernandes says:

    Hi, my name is Marlene and my brother’s name is Errol, we both have RP., how can we get help? With Vitamin A therapy??
    I am saddened to hear of Dr Berson’s condolences to his family.
    I would like more help for both of us, please..

  5. Greg Morris says:

    Dr. Berson gave our family hope while I was a patient in his Vitamin A studies at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary Berman Gund Lab. He was literally my hero. Knowing that someone so smart and dedicated to finding a cure for my family’s inherited Rare Eye Diseases Retinitis Pigmentosa was extremely comforting. I can’t thank him enough. I was always excited to see him and he was just as excited to see me. Dr. Berson is gone from our sight, but never from our hearts.

  6. Dr and Mrs Adrian Costanza says:

    Dr Berson was our doctor for many years.. when he left Mass Eye an Ear we were devastated.. His compassion for his patients was equal to his genius in his work.. we also had his father as our children’s pediatrician and he also was an outstanding physician!! This is a tremendous loss to science.. not many young doctors have his love for research… Our sympathy to his wife and brother.. we are so saddened…

  7. Lynn Stelmah says:

    I met Dr. Berson through the clinical trial testing the efficacy of lutein. He was always patient in explaining RP and the trial. He gave me hope that I would have sight for many years to come and the there might even be a cure someday. I am sorry we have lost such a pioneer and passionate health care provider.

  8. Tonia Den says:

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