Before Jean Bennett found a way to use gene therapy to treat inherited blindness in children, she restored sight in puppies—two of which now live with her, “chasing squirrels around the backyard.”
For the last 30 years, Bennett, a scientist and physician at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has been a pioneer in gene therapy, looking for a way to treat a hereditary form of blindness that people are born with—the type that when parents get the news they’re told to “put away those colorful books in the baby’s room, learn braille and set aside the dreams of a bicycle or playing sports,” she says.
When Bennett and her husband, Albert Maguire, a retinal surgeon, first decided to commit to investigating ways to treat genetic blindness with gene therapy in the 1990s, they had no idea what they were up against, she explains.
“We felt that with the growth of technology, which allows people to clone and manipulate DNA, and knowledge of what the genes were, we could make a difference. We were very naive. We didn’t know all the obstacles, but we starting tackling them one by one,” as Bennett told Baltimore-based chef Spike Gjerde at “The Long Conversation,” an event that brought together more than two dozen thinkers for an eight-hour relay of two-person dialogues about hope for the future at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on December 7, 2018.
In December 2017, her team’s gene therapy treatment received FDA approval, paving the way not only for treatment of hereditary blindness, but also for researchers to use gene therapy to treat many more genetic conditions. This past December, the drug was approved in the European Union. So, in a way, the future she’s been hoping for is finally here.
And what exactly is it like to cure a child of blindness?
“It’s absolutely indescribable,” says Bennett. “Each time I’ve seen this happen, it absolutely makes me want to cry.”