Originally posted: Wisconsin State Journal, Fri., Sept. 14, 2007

Until recently, retinoblastoma was something most people had never heard of. But the tragic news that the daughter of NBA player Derek Fisher was diagnosed with this cancer in one of her eyes brought the devastating disease into the national spotlight. My thoughts and prayers immediately went out to Fisher and his daughter and family when I heard the sad news. It also brought back to me a flood of memories, because my oldest son was diagnosed with retinoblastoma just after his first birthday.

My son suffered from bilateral retinoblastoma, meaning that tumors were found in both eyes. And like most people, my wife and I had never heard of this childhood cancer. In fact, medical experts say only about 350 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States and Canada. Thankfully, my son, now 8 years old, is cancer-free and still has vision in his left eye. He rides a bike, likes to play golf and loves to read. Common forms of treatment for retinoblastoma are radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. While effective, both treatments have risks as well, from possible secondary cancers resulting from radiation to the weakening of a child’s immune system from chemotherapy.

Fortunately, cutting-edge research at UW-Madison could lead to new forms of treatment for retinoblastoma and other ocular tumors — without the possible side effects of radiation or chemotherapy. Led by Dr. Daniel Albert, a UW ophthalmologist, and Dr. Arthur Polans, a UW biochemist, this research focuses on using derivative forms of Vitamin D to treat retinoblastoma. Their studies have shown that Vitamin D is highly effective in eliminating retinoblastoma tumors, and in the right doses it does not present the typical side effects of other treatments. Clinical studies of these Vitamin D analogs have now been initiated in conjunction with colleagues at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

The promise of discovering therapies for retinoblastoma and many other eye diseases, along with the opportunity for advancing vision research through partnerships among experts from diverse disciplines, led UW-Madison to create the UW Eye Research Institute. With the goal of serving as the nation’s preeminent eye research institute, the ERI is poised to provide new breakthroughs in vision science. I have first-hand experience with the high level of medical and scientific expertise at the university, as my son was treated at UW for his disease and we continue to return to Madison for his checkups. And I’m convinced the ERI, under the leadership of Drs. Albert and Polans and other world-class UW researchers, will create new knowledge to better treat eye diseases in the future. Many children and their parents and families like mine will be thankful.

Christianson is director of public and media relations for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, based in Indianapolis, and is on the external advisory board of the UW Eye Research Institute.