Nashville resident pushes Congress for stem-cell research

Date (2016-06-28 )

WASHINGTON — Doug Oliver knows the power of a personal story.

People are clearly moved whenever he tells them he was legally blind for years but can see again, thanks to advances in medical technology.

If his story can move people, he figures, maybe it can help move legislation through Congress.

“I came here with an agenda,” Oliver said last week, ahead of a series of meetings with congressional lawmakers.

At the top of that agenda: Make sure lawmakers understand that the kinds of treatment that restored his vision are available now and could help other people, if only Congress would remove regulatory barriers standing in the way.

Oliver, who lives in Nashville, shared his story with more than two-dozen lawmakers in hopes it would encourage them to pass comprehensive biomedical legislation that could come up for a vote in the Senate in a few weeks.

The bill, championed by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would speed approval of drugs and medical devices and boost funding for medical research into treatments and cures for diseases like cancer and the hereditary condition that robbed Oliver of his eyesight.

Alexander, who heads the Senate committee that oversees health issues, was so touched by Oliver’s story that he asked for his input on the legislation and arranged for Oliver to meet with other senators.

“The more senators of either party hear these stories,” Alexander said, “the more eager they will be to resolve any remaining differences we have and finish the bill.”

Oliver, 54, underwent stem-cell treatment in Florida last August to correct a rare form of macular degeneration, an incurable disease that severely impaired the vision in both his eyes.

Oliver regained much of his eyesight after taking part in the Stem Cell Ophthalmology Treatment Study, a privately funded, federally approved trial underway at Retinal Associates of South Florida, a clinic near Fort Lauderdale.

Last August, doctors used a needle to extract stem cells from Oliver’s hip bone, spun them in a centrifuge, and then injected them into the damaged areas of his eyes. The goal was to see if the stem cells would grow into healthy cells and restore his vision.

Almost immediately, Oliver’s eyesight started to improve. He’s now able to drive for the first time in a decade.

As inspiring as his story is, Oliver recognizes there’s even greater power in numbers. So he arranged for four other people who underwent the same treatment to join him on Capitol Hill and share their stories with lawmakers.

Vanna Belton, a Baltimore restaurant owner who tried everything from herbs and acupuncture to restore her vision, had the stem-cell surgery two years ago and now sees well enough to read her own menus.

Jennifer Carden of San Diego was stunned when, after undergoing the treatment two years ago, she looked out her window and could see, in the distance, a bug caught in a spider web.

Robin Blum of Washington, D.C., lost her job because of poor vision. It’s already started to improve even though she had the procedure done just last May.

Nine months after she had the treatment, Theresa Taylor’s improvement hasn’t been as dramatic. But the Burlington, Wis., mother of two still dreams of watching her kids hit a home run without depending on someone else to tell her when they’re at bat.

“The worst feeling for a mother,” she said, “is to hear somebody else cheer for your kid, and you’re like, ‘What did they do?’ ”

Oliver is convinced those stories can make a difference if lawmakers will only listen.

And for several days last week, they did. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who lost the vision in his right eye in an exercising accident, met with Oliver for an hour and an half.

“We had a very personal conversation,” Oliver said, declining to offer details.

The meeting ended with Reid giving him a bear hug.

Other meetings also left Oliver hopeful that his story — and the stories of the four other people — provided just the spark needed to get the legislation moving.

“This might be a fire catching on,” he said.

Michael Collins is The Tennessean’s Washington correspondent. His weekly Tennessee in D.C. column highlights Volunteer State lawmakers, causes and connections. Contact him at 703-854-8927 or