$2 million prize announced for cure for blindness by 2020

Haller, a Baltimore-area resident, applauded the goal to cure blindness by 2020.

"That's great goal; it's a catchy end point; it's a lot of money, and it's very exciting," she said. "I spent my life trying to erase the scourge of blindness from the Earth. That's why I do what I do and what my colleagues do; you won't find people cheering any more loudly than we are."

Significant investments in research also exist. Dr. Sheila West, an ophthalmologist and professor at the Wilmer Eye Institute, received a $10 million grant in 2007 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work on eradicating a bacterial eye disease called trachoma that blinds an estimated 4 million people worldwide each year.

McDonnell, the director at Hopkins' eye institute, said the winner of the $2 million prize will likely not be limited in the way he or she, or they, can use the money. The concept is modeled after the Nobel Prize, he said, though conversations are continuing about how to ensure the best use of the donation.

The prize is bigger than most scientific research awards. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards "genius" grants to writers, scientists, musicians and artists. Each is worth $500,000. In 2011, the foundation gave $230 million in awards.

The Gruber Foundation gives annual awards worth $500,000 for achievements in genetics, justice, women's rights and neuroscience. Hopkins professor Charles L. Bennett won this year's Gruber Prize for cosmology for research he led in forming what is known as the "standard model" explaining the makeup, origins and expansion of the universe.

Prevent Blindness America, founded in 1908, has provided $1 million in annual grants for eye and vision research projects. This year's Investigator Award winner was Dr. Alex V. Levin of the Wills Eye Institute, who is involved in a project with Philadelphia schoolchildren who have significant visual impairment and require continuing treatment.

In August, the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, announced $3,000 awards it will provide to as many as 20 contestants who submit the most compelling ideas to advance the science surrounding vision loss and blindness. Submissions to the initiative, called the Audacious Goals Challenge, must be submitted by Nov. 12.

Dr. David W. Parke II, chief executive of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said he wouldn't be surprised if the prize being administered by Hopkins were to grow. He said nearly every person knows someone who is visually impaired or blind, and people fear being stricken with blindness. Studies consistently rank blindness among people's top three fears, including death and being diagnosed with cancer.

Parke said the academy's more than 30,000 members — what he called one of the most powerful and effective forces in the quest to end blindness — stand behind the goal attached to the $2 million.

"I can't tell you how much the academy applauds those who are making the Greenberg prize a reality," Parke said. "We share their passion. We share their goals. Anything we can do to advance the cause, this academy will do with great enthusiasm.

"The goal captures the imagination. It is something that is so bold it is chilling in its potential."