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Branna and Irving Sisenwein Professorship in Ophthalmology

School of Medicine

Established in 2018 by Branna and Irving Sisenwein and the Maryland E-Nnovation Initiative Fund

BRANNA and IRVING SISENWEIN, both natives of New York and each living well into their 90’s, lived much of their long years inspired by the goal of eradicating blindness. Irv was in his 30’s when he was diagnosed with chorioretinitis and endured the successive loss of sight to total blindness over the subsequent decades of his life. Irv and Branna traveled to many countries to consult with renowned physicians and medical scientists and to offer ophthalmology residents the opportunity to study Irv’s relatively rare condition.

There are few venues related to sight that were not influenced and touched by Branna and Irv, including Guide dogs, books for the blind, mobile units that conducted visual screening for inner city children, seminars on corneal donor transplantation, lecture series and many other initiatives. After years of running charity events to support a number of foundations, Branna and Irv started their own upon permanently locating to Palm Springs, California. The Desert Visionaires hosted golf and tennis tournaments, auctions and annual charity events to expand resources for retinal research, a goal which became more poignant as Branna ultimately lost her sight from macular degeneration.

Branna and Irv lived full lives that included international travel, opera, theater, the arts, sports and demonstrating that their visual disabilities did not equate with being handicapped. Many of their remarkable experiences were captured in Branna’s autobiography, Blind Vision, the forward of which was written by Dr. Peter McDonnell.

The MARYLAND E-NNOVATION INITIATIVE FUND (MEIF), administered by the Maryland Department of Commerce, offers a state match to private funds raised in support of endowed chairs at Maryland’s higher education institutions. The Branna and Irving Sisenwein Professorship was funded by a grant award from the Maryland E-Nnovation Initiative Fund to match the Wilmer Endowed Fund in honor of Branna and Irving Sisenwein, created by Mrs. Sisenwein’s bequest.

Held by Akrit Sodhi

AKRIT SODHI, MD, PhD, the inaugural recipient of the Branna and Irving Sisenwein Professorship, has had a distinguished academic career. Following his undergraduate degree in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from the University of California, Los Angeles, he earned his MD and PhD degrees from the University of California, Davis in 2004. His PhD research on Kaposi’s Sarcoma, which combined molecular genetics with innovative animal models, resulted in publications in the most prestigious biomedical and cancer research journals and have influenced how clinicians now treat patients with this enigmatic vascular tumor. Dr. Sodhi then joined the ophthalmology residency program at the Wilmer Eye Institute, where he subsequently completed a fellowship in vitreoretinal surgery. He also served as assistant chief of service (chief resident), a position held by many past and present leaders in American ophthalmology. Dr. Sodhi was named Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2010, and Associate Professor of Ophthalmology in 2017.

Dr. Sodhi’s research program has focused on the role of the transcription factor hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) in ocular disease. HIF regulates the expression of the genes that cause vision loss in patients with age-related macular degeneration, diabetic eye disease, retinal vein occlusion, sickle cell retinopathy, and retinopathy of prematurity, the leading causes of vision loss worldwide. Dr. Sodhi’s research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, Research to Prevent Blindness, and the Beckman Initiative for Macular Research and has produced nearly 40 peer-reviewed scientific articles and numerous additional book chapters, editorials, and reviews. His research has been published in the most prestigious scientific journals and has led to substantial advances in our understanding of age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease. Dr. Sodhi, in collaboration with Dr. Gregg L. Semenza, who discovered HIF, and Dr. Jordan Green, an expert in drug delivery, is now focused on translating the discoveries they have made at the bench to the patients he treats in the clinic. Together, they have founded the company, HIF Therapeutics, which will develop novel therapies targeting HIF for the treatment of patients with ocular neovascular disease and cancer.

Dr. Sodhi has received many honors and awards, including the RPB Career Development Award, the American Society for Clinical Investigation’s Young Physician-Scientist Award, the RPB Special Scholar Award, and the Alcon Research Institute Young Investigator Award. Recognition of Dr. Sodhi’s expertise in ocular disease extends beyond the vision science community; he currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the leading translational research journal. Dr. Sodhi has been invited as visiting professor at ophthalmology departments across the United States, and he has given numerous lectures internationally at universities and conferences in Asia and Europe.

The foundation for Dr. Sodhi’s research program has been built upon fruitful collaborations with colleagues with diverse and complementary expertise. Dr. Sodhi is thankful for the generous contributions of his many research and clinical colleagues at Johns Hopkins and the Wilmer Eye Institute.