An endowment gift from a tycoon suffering an obscure disease or condition may sound less like a ringing endorsement of promising research and more like a bequest in the name of wishful thinking. However, Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn sounds positively persuasive in his praise for stem cell researchers at the University of Iowa, to whom he gave a substantial sum to find a cure for a degenerative form of blindness he happens to have.
On Friday, the 71 year old gave $25 million to the university to help fund work to cure blindness caused by retinitis pigmentosa, among other conditions. Wynn was first diagnosed with the rare eye defect nearly half a century ago, when no hope existed for sufferers. Slowly, Wynn’s eyesight has weakened with nighttime blindness and lack of peripheral vision.
But he believes researchers at the university may find a cure within his lifetime, using stem cells taken from his own body for testing in laboratory mice.
"This is an exhilarating, quite exciting place. To a scientist, this is like going to a rock concert," Wynn, the chairman of Wynn Resorts Ltd., told The Associated Press. "I mean there is stuff going on in these rooms here that, to put it in the common vernacular, is really far out."
Wynn spoke with reporters following an event at the university to rededicate the “Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research” following the monetary gift in August. The university plans to build a new laboratory to grow stem cells, hire more researchers, and further investigations already underway.
Wynn also praised researchers by saying his business accomplishments in Las Vegas paled by comparison to the important stem cell research being conducted at the university. "The rest of the world is waiting with bated breath for the kind of work you're doing," he said. "To help keep the lights on in this institute has now become synonymous with keeping the lights on in people's eyes."
Wynn, whose name is borne by numerous casinos and hotels around the world, said the university asked to use his name for the research institute, a la Trump style, to gussy up donations from competitive alumni and business magnates with ties to the state. The tycoon also said the donation was meant to help others, and that he’d been “blessed” with a slow progression of the disease.
Still, he marveled at the scientific accomplishments of the day. “They’ve got my cells in mice!” he said. “There’s 100 mice here that had my retinal cells and they are running around.” Someday, Wynn may be one of the first patients to receive replacement photoreceptor cells in an effort to restore vision lost to the disease.