Gala fundraiser helps light the way to enhanced vision research

"Dining in the Dark" promotes better understanding of visual impairment.


(Edmonton) Every day as a trained ophthalmologist, Ian MacDonald sees the importance of research into vision-related diseases. It’s knowledge the professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences hopes to pass on to others at an out-of-the-ordinary fundraising event Sept. 5.

“The event is a dining in the dark experience,” explains MacDonald, “all to raise money towards vision research here at the University of Alberta.”

The fourth annual Dining in the Dark Fundraising Gala will be held at the Fantasyland Hotel Ballroom at West Edmonton Mall, attracting upwards of 300 guests, who will enjoy music and a gourmet meal under dimmed lights—and with a sleep mask over their eyes.

Event co-ordinator Julianna Wozniak says the lack of sight will be a real eye-opener for some. “It allows them to see what it would be like to have vision impairment while trying to eat and drink, and co-ordinate utensils.”

“One of the individuals that I sat with once previously took it upon her to keep the sleep mask on throughout the night, and she unfortunately had to leave the room,” recounts MacDonald with a laugh. “So she wanted to understand what that experience might be like, to go from the table to another location and to have to ask people for help. She really got into the experience. Although there was some humour in it, it was revealing to her just what the challenges might be.”

Although the gala is in good fun, the money raised is used to advance serious research at the U of A. In recent years, researchers in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences have made large strides in their work to better understand and treat genetic eye disease. One of their main contributions has been to isolate, identify and clone genes that are now used by scientists around the world in ongoing vision-related research.

MacDonald says those gains in knowledge will soon lead to new gene therapy treatments. “Really, that horizon is now here. We can take the next step and undertake clinical trials aimed at gene replacement that will not necessarily cure a disorder, but treat it in some way and modify the progression of that disease.”

To continue making gains, though, MacDonald says events like the Dining in the Dark gala are needed to help local researchers fill in funding gaps. “Funding agencies these days will allow funding for operating expenses but do not generally provide money for equipment. It’s very hard to come by.”

Each year the event raises about $100,000 to help provide funding to student researchers and to buy much-needed equipment for the department. Provided all goes well this year, MacDonald says, he already has some pieces of equipment in mind.

“We have, for example, a bare room next door. It’s called our common research room, and there are some posters along the walls of equipment we’d like to buy,” says MacDonald. “Depending on what funds are available, there are some major pieces that we need to put into our laboratory.”