You are here

Bill Marriott helps engineer better tools for eye surgery

Family foundation gift pays homage to surgeon and scientist, and sparks new cross-divisional collaboration
Posted September 15, 2015
Bill Marriott Bill Marriott

Everyone's hands naturally tremble. Although surgeons have steadier hands than the average person, that movement still makes it challenging to perform surgery on or around small and fragile targets — like say, your eye.

That’s where the experts at the Wilmer Eye Institute and the Whiting School of Engineering — and their new champion Bill Marriott — come in.

Marriott, executive chairman and chairman of the board of Marriott International, knows firsthand the importance of trusting your eye surgeon and his or her tools. In March 2013 he underwent surgery at the Wilmer Eye Institute to remove scar tissue on his retina. He credits his physician, Peter L. Gehlbach, MD, PhD, with saving his sight.

“If I had waited to get treatment for months, I would have lost sight in my left eye,” Marriott says. “I feel very blessed.”

Wanting to support Gehlbach’s work, he asked how he could help. Marriott learned that Gehlbach, the Maumenee Scholar in the School of Medicine and an expert in treating vitreoretinal diseases, was collaborating with engineers to develop tools that help surgeons. Marriott was impressed.

“The technology they are working on is really Star Wars kind of stuff,” Marriott says. “I think the collaboration part of this is extremely important. I find that when people talk to each other, a lot more gets done than when they’re just sitting in a room talking to themselves.”

By making a $1 million gift through his family foundation, The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, Marriott provided a vital boost to the interdisciplinary work of Gehlbach and his Whiting School colleagues, enabling them to jumpstart their promising work in developing more advanced tools to assist eye surgeons and change the lives of many facing vision loss.

Having engineers and surgeons partner on this task enables each to bring their strengths and expertise to a complicated problem. The Foundation’s gift will also support Gehlbach’s research in perpetuity, as well as provide support to doctoral engineering students focused on developing tools for ophthalmologists.

“We’re developing tools that see very small structures better than we do,” Gehlbach explains. “We are also engineering tools that not only compensate for surgeon hand tremor and patient movement, but also perform micro-robotic tasks with precision that is beyond our own unassisted human ability. When the tools are fully developed, we will be able to more accurately identify surgical targets and remove them with greater precision, with less effort, in shorter times, and, importantly, with greater safety.”

Having the funding to pursue the creation of these new tools will make an incredible difference to the work of Gehlbach and his computer science and engineering colleagues.

“When you assemble the smartest and most dedicated scientists and give them the resources they need, they can change the world,” says Paul B. Rothman, MD, the Frances Watt Baker, MD, and Lenox D. Baker Jr., MD, Dean of the Medical Faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“Bill Marriott champions this important work.”