CEO builds Utah's Moran Eye Center into world-class eye care, research hub

Published August 28, 2011 8:34 pm
Science • CEO has built eye center into a world-class facility.
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When Lucas Westover came to Randall Olson, his left eye had completely clouded over.

Injured in a paintball accident eight years ago, the 31-year-old oil rig worker from Clifton, Idaho, had been warned surgery was risky and had all but lost hope of regaining his sight. Olson was one of only a handful of eye doctors in the country who might help him, he was told.

"Before, all I could see was gray. Now I've got 20/15 vision," said Westover at a checkup earlier this month. "I have depth perception, which helps with my hand-eye coordination. It makes a huge difference driving and at work. I wish I had gone in earlier."

Helping people to see — whether in the exam room or the board room — has been a 32-year occupation for Olson, CEO of the Moran Eye Center.

Ignoring the advice of colleagues who saw no future in ophthalmology at the University of Utah, Olson joined the faculty in 1979. He is credited with turning what was then a one-person division into a world-class eye center with 500 employees and a $64 million operating budget.

The lean 64-year-old now spends most of his time as visionary-in-chief, but he still produces research and spends about 13 days a month treating patients.

"The past five years, since moving into this building, have been the most exciting," said Olson from his office in the Moran Center, a glass-walled tower on the east bench with views of the Salt Lake Valley. "I've never been more invigorated. We're on the cusp of some real breakthroughs. I'm just pumped."

David Parke, executive vice president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said Moran "ranks in the top echelon of American eye institutes."

What sets it apart, he added, is its size and the caliber of its 30 doctors and 50 researchers, some of whom "are truly world famous."

Seizing opportunities •Philanthropy — chiefly the timely donations of Moran's namesake, John Moran, a Wall Street executive and U. graduate — fueled the center's growth. But the hallmark of all great eye institutes is leadership, said Parke. "It takes someone who can see opportunity where others don't, plus the energy and work ethic to seize it."

Olson, a graduate of the U.'s medical school, was two years out of residency and on the faculty at Louisiana State University when his alma mater lost its ophthalmology chairman. He called the U.'s chief of surgery, flew in for an interview and was offered the job on the spot.

Ophthalmology was a one-person division, and Olson's boss at LSU questioned the move. "He said, 'Randy, you've got a great career and being chairman-of-nothing is nothing,' " he recalls.

Young, ambitious and admittedly naive, Olson recruited a faculty member before his first day on the job and in short order made another hire.

"The chief of surgery came to me and said, 'You can't do that. How are you going to pay for that?' " said Olson. "I told him, 'I have no choice. I've already made a commitment.' "

Olson needed funding, and that meant becoming a full-fledged department, so he set about enhancing ophthalmology's visibility on campus and joined the U.'s Faculty Senate. Three years later he reached department status, but to make a difference in eye care, he needed a center where clinicians and researchers could work together toward curing blindness.

He went to then-vice president, and later president, Chase Peterson and asked for permission to raise money. "He laughed and told me to go ahead, but not to expect help," Olson recalled.

Successful campaigns led to a first center in 1993 and Moran's current 120,000-square-foot home, built five years ago this month.

At a 'magic point' •Moran has ridden a wave of innovation. Three decades ago there was no treatment for macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people over age 60. Now, with the most devastating cases, doctors have a 90 percent chance of arresting vision loss and 30 percent chance of reversing it.

Refractive, or Lasik, surgeries are commonplace. And cataract procedures are now done with topical anesthesia, no longer require sutures and allow patients to resume normal activity a day later.

Had Westover's injury happened 30 years ago, treatment would not have been available, Olson said.

Moran nets more research funding from the National Institutes of Health than almost any other eye center. And it's home to a new Center for Translational Medicine, which aims to quickly bring lab discoveries to market.

"Olson recognized very early on the importance of technology and how this relates to how we treat our patients surgically," said Nick Mamalis, a cataract surgeon who was earning his medical degree at the U. when Olson took charge.

Mamalis directs Moran's Intermountain Ocular Research Center, which tests new materials for interocular lenses. Some of the center's designs are available in Europe and are being tested for use in the U.S.

Not long ago the lenses installed during cataract surgery would allow patients to see at a distance, but now multifocal lenses are available, said Mamalis. Another innovation, light-adjustable lenses, can be tweaked with a laser weeks after surgery to better suit patients.

The U. granted Moran institute status this year, broadening its ability to collaborate with specialists outside ophthalmology.

"There's that magic point where synergy happens and everything takes off. That's where we are," said Olson.

More to do •In 2010, Olson persuaded Gregory Hageman to leave an endowed professorship at the University of Iowa. Hageman brought his lab with him: seven semi-truck trailers of instruments and equipment and 4,000 pairs of human eyes donated for research, the largest collection in the world.

He also brought his research acumen — the director of the Human Genome Project has credited Hageman with the "first major translational research discovery to come from the Human Genome," according to a U. news release announcing his hire. Hageman discovered that proteins involved in the body's immune system play a major role in age-related macular degeneration.

Hageman and geneticist and neuroscientist Margaret DeAngelis, recruited last year from Harvard University, are investigating what protects some people from the disease while causing it in others.

"There's been a lot of research on risk, but we're hoping to get to causality. If you find the cause, you're more likely to find treatment," said DeAngelis.

De Angelis said Olson emphasizes collegiality and teamwork over egos. "There's a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of attitude here, not hands-on-your-hips science," she said. Olson is "incredibly supportive and a man of his word."

This year Olson will become the longest-serving ophthalmology chairman in the country. He has no plans to retire.

"I'm having too much fun," he said.


Randall J Olson

Chairman of the Ophthalmology Department at the University of Utah and CEO of the Moran Eye Center

Age: 64

Family: Married to Ruth, a native of Sweden, for 41 years. The couple have five children and 11 grandchildren.

Hobbies: hiking and fly fishing

Bragging rights: One of 15 top cataract surgeons in the U.S., according to peer survey by Ophthalmology Times. Named one of 18 global ophthalmology leaders in Eye World. —

Key to success

Randall J Olson's secret for success: Encouraging employees to have fun and decompress. —

Randall J Olson

Chairman of the Ophthalmology Department at the University of Utah and CEO of the Moran Eye Center

Age: 64

Family: Married to Ruth, a native of Sweden, for 41 years. The couple have five children and 11 grandchildren.

Hobbies: hiking and fly fishing.

Bragging rights: One of 15 top cataract surgeons in the U.S., according to peer survey by Ophthalmology Times. Named one of 18 global ophthalmology leaders in Eye World.



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