$1 million gift helps research center

Sarah McKenzie

The University’s International Albinism Center, home to one of the leading research teams in the nation on the pigment condition, received a hefty donation this spring from an alumnus.
Retired banker Bernard Black, 83, donated $1 million to the center. Black has albinism and participated in research during the 1970s at the University.
Plans to launch further studies into gene therapy for albinism will be the fundamental use of Black’s contribution, said center co-director Richard King, professor of medicine and pediatrics.
“The gift has been a fabulous stimulus to our research,” King said. “It’s a nice acknowledgment of our work.”
Increased investment from the National Institutes of Health is also probable as a result of Black’s contribution, said Dr. William S. Oetting, a researcher at the center.
Albinism is a gene alteration that causes deficiencies in the production of the pigment, melanin. Individuals with albinism have little or no amounts of pigment in their eyes, skin or hair. Vision impairments and a proneness to skin cancer are problems associated with albinism.
Black graduated from the University in 1940 with a degree in business. He maintained contact with his alma mater as a participant in albinism research conducted by Dr. Carl Witkap.
“I was involved in early research with albinism and later volunteered to counsel young people with albinism,” said Black. “My hope with this gift is to help further research on vision problems associated with albinism.”
Martha Douglas, director of communications for the University of Minnesota Foundation, said Black’s gift was in part a tribute to Witkap and a symbol of his intent to help other individuals with the condition.
King noted that the University’s center is on the “leading edge” of albinism research. “No one else is doing what we are,” King said. Researchers have identified five genes associated with various types of albinism.
Oetting called the donation “seed money.” He said the new funds will make further preliminary research possible.
Team researchers have isolated genes associated with albinism, a condition that affects more than 18,000 people in the United States. For the past 10 years, King and his colleagues have focused on the development of the eye as an indication of the disease.
There are two main types of albinism. Melanin pigment missing in the skin, hair and eyes is indicative of oculocutaneous albinism, the most common type. Individuals with ocular albinism have normal hair and skin types, but lack the melanin pigment in their eyes.
King said it is very important to understand the biochemical steps involved in the formation of the melanin pigment, and how those steps are altered in individuals with albinism.