Robert Nussenblatt, M.D., chief of the Laboratory of Immunology at the National Eye Institute (NEI), died on April 17 at age 67. Dr Nussenblatt began working at NEI, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1977, and proved himself to be a tireless scientist, research leader, mentor, clinician, and patient advocate.
Dr. Nussenblatt was a world-renowned expert on inflammatory diseases affecting the eye, including uveitis. He literally wrote the book on this subject—“Uveitis: Fundamentals and Clinical Practice”—now in its fourth edition. He authored several other books and more than 600 articles in scientific journals.
Many patients with ocular inflammatory disease endure long-term treatment with medications that have unwanted and sometimes intolerable side effects. Dr. Nussenblatt dedicated his entire career to understanding the mechanisms of uveitis and developing better treatment approaches. He was a pioneer in utilizing immunomodulatory treatment in uveitis. One of his major accomplishments was demonstrating that cyclosporine was effective as a steroid-sparing agent, which has since become the standard of care for non-infectious uveitis. He also led research to test the biologic agent daclizumab as a treatment for uveitis and helped pave the way for its use in treating some types of multiple sclerosis.
His leadership roles at NIH included serving as clinical director and scientific director of NEI. He was also a senior advisor to the deputy director of the NIH Intramural Research Program, associate director (clinical director) of the NIH Center for Human Immunology, and acting scientific director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) from 2004-2012.
Dr. Nussenblatt recognized the importance of team science, and pursued it at an international scale. He led the UNITE consortium, which partners NEI with sites in the United Kingdom, South China, and Hong Kong in the study of ocular inflammatory diseases. He had honorary degrees from around the world.
Dr. Nussenblatt’s commitment to his patients was remarkable. He always put patients first—never hesitating to drop everything to tend to their needs. He routinely exceeded the expectations of patients and families. He always made time to talk, and had an uncanny ability to remember almost anyone he met, even acquaintances he had not seen for decades.
By training other clinicians, Dr. Nussenblatt influenced patient care worldwide. Over the span of his 39 years at the NIH, Dr. Nussenblatt mentored more than 67 fellows who are now practicing around the globe. These include Dr. Daniel Martin, ophthalmology chair at the Cleveland Clinic, and ophthalmology chairs at the Walter Reed Medical Center and institutions in Paris, Nepal, and Japan. He received the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Life Achievement Honor Award in 2011. Additionally, he had spoken at more than 66 invited lectureships around the world. He was recently nominated to become a Distinguished NIH Investigator.