UNMC macular degeneration, regenerative medicine research bolstered by $1.3 million gift

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Omaha, Neb. – A familiar phrase may best describe a recent $1.3 million gift by the late Mary and Roy Pearson of Holdrege, Neb. — the gift that keeps on giving.

Made from their estate, the Pearsons’ gift helps fund research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in macular degeneration and regenerative medicine and supports two existing endowed funds established at the University of Nebraska Foundation by the Pearsons during their lifetimes.

This gift brings the Pearsons’ total giving to the foundation in support of the University of Nebraska to nearly $2.7 million.

The most recent contribution furthers the Pearsons’ commitment to helping UNMC scientists develop treatments for diseases that drastically impact people’s lives. Roy, himself, suffered from macular degeneration. It also provides support to the university’s current fundraising initiative, Campaign for Nebraska, which concludes Dec. 31.

Their philanthropic support of UNMC’s department of ophthalmology and visual sciences began in 2007 when they made an initial gift to support Dr. Iqbal Ahmad’s research in macular degeneration.

“Mary and Roy came into our lives as philanthropists and science benefactors but became our inspiration and guiding elders,” said Ahmad, a professor in the UNMC department of ophthalmology and visual sciences and the Truhlsen Eye Institute (TEI). “Their initial gift provided critical seed money and made possible some of our most important findings regarding regenerative medicine for retinal degeneration.”

The Pearsons often visited Ahmad’s lab when traveling to Omaha. A great friendship developed.

“I learned about life from these two wonderful people of the greatest generation,” he said. “The foundation of American uniqueness was not laid in big cities but in towns like Holdrege and by people like the Pearsons. Early on, they could see through the debates that stem cell research was important and might one day lead to the treatment of blindness. They rallied for it with their resources, time and passion.”

Roy died in 2010 and Mary in 2013.

The Pearsons’ gift also supports UNMC’s regenerative medicine program, which brings together scientists and physicians to develop innovative medical therapies that enable the body to repair, replace, restore and regenerate damaged or diseased tissues and organs.

“We are very grateful to the Pearsons for thinking about how they can impact the future of health care with this gift,” said Nora Sarvetnick, Ph.D., director of the UNMC Mary and Dick Holland Regenerative Medicine Program. “Regenerative medicine research holds the key to improved treatments and possibly cures for many diseases. Our faculty and student researchers will utilize this funding to help support their work in developing and growing new tissues for debilitating diseases.”

Both Mary and Roy grew up during the Depression and were deeply influenced by those experiences.

In a 2011 interview, Mary talked about Roy and his spirit for helping others.

“Because he grew up poor, he had much empathy for people in need,” she said. “And his empathy was contagious. His motto was, ‘Leave things better than you found them.'”

Mary also gave of her time and resources, becoming a charter patron of the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and serving on the Phelps County Foundation board after Roy completed his term.

Roy formed and owned K-K Appliance Company in Holdrege where Mary began working in 1948. The business grew over time to include seven propane plants, a truck terminal, farms in Phelps County and a cattle ranch in Cherry County.

Following his retirement Roy began suffering from macular degeneration. “He still could drive, but he couldn’t read what he wanted to read. I’d read from three newspapers a day to him. But his attitude stayed great,” Mary said.

In the last 10 years of his life Roy served on the UNMC Board of Counselors, “so we spent much time at UNMC and formed many friendships during his two terms,” she added. “It was a wonderful time of our lives. UNMC was very dear to our hearts.”

Quan Dong Nguyen, M.D., MSc, McGaw Memorial Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology and the inaugural director of the Truhlsen Eye Institute at UNMC, said the Pearsons’ generous support will allow TEI and the department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences to attract the most talented clinician scientists to the TEI faculty.

“Together, the scientists can strive to preserve and improve vision for the many patients who suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD),” he said. “We truly hope that our clinical and research efforts will decrease the risk of visual loss — and hence the inability to read newspapers — for patients with AMD in the future, thus fulfilling the wishes of Mr. and Mrs. Pearson.”

The Pearsons’ presence is felt throughout the Truhlsen Eye Institute beyond their support of research. TEI houses several works of art donated by the Pearsons, including bronze statues and paintings.

The University of Nebraska Foundation is an independent, nonprofit organization raising private gifts to support the University of Nebraska for more than 78 years. Last year, donors provided the university with $258.1 million for scholarships, academic programs, medical and other research, faculty support and facilities. The foundation’s comprehensive fundraising campaign, the Campaign for Nebraska, has raised more than $1.8 billion for the university and ends on Dec. 31. For more information, visit campaignfornebraska.org.

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