University of Iowa Patient Brews Craft Beer to Help Fight Eye Disease

The University of Iowa Institute for Vision Research has discovered a potential cure and preventative treatments for rare heritable conditions like retinitis pigmentosa and one of the most common forms of vision loss, macular degeneration. The IVR aims to make these treatments widely affordable and available within a matter of years.

Rob Hage struggles to hold back the tears. Every day he thinks about his grandkids facing the same inherited eye disease that afflicts him and his son. These aren't tears of grief, however. They're tears of joy because he has reason to believe his grandchildren will never have to experience the fear of blindness that he and his son have faced.

To help expedite that process, Hage's family is raising awareness and money for the IVR through craft beer. In September 2021, the Hages started their own brewery, Blind Butcher Brewing, in Inwood, Iowa, and raised more than $42,000 within a year.

Earlier this summer, the family launched Brews for Blindness—a nonprofit that's organizing other community-minded breweries to join its mission. Each partner can designate a new or existing beer to the cause, allocating a portion of sales to the IVR. Together, these efforts will spread hope and empower others to help cure blindness, one beer at a time.

"There's no reason we have to leave anybody behind in this disease; we can help everyone," says Hage. "That's our mission—and until this disease is gone, we're just going to keep plugging at it."

Seeing is Believing

Hage has witnessed the IVR's "leave no one behind" mentality at work. Fourteen years ago, Hage traveled across the state to see IVR director and ophthalmologist Ed Stone (89R, 90F, 92F) in the UI Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. Hage was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that involves a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina that steadily narrows his central vision. Despite the discouraging diagnosis, Hage still left Iowa City with a glimmer of hope. Stone told him that his team wouldn't quit until they found a cure.

In December 2020, that potential cure came to light. Hage watched a webinar in which Stone described a promising vision-restoring treatment that was positioned to undergo clinical trials in the coming years. The challenge was making it affordable. That's where Hage's vision for starting a brewery came into focus.

Soon after Blind Butcher Brewing opened, Hage's son was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. The news came as a shock, though it wasn't nearly as daunting for the family as his own diagnosis. "Things were surprisingly a lot easier," says Hage. "We're just so confident in what's being done [at the IVR]. We know it's going to work. It's just a matter of time, awareness, fundraising, and this grassroots effort that we're involved with here in Iowa."

Collaboration for a Cause

This past May, Brews for Blindness took flight with the canning of its pilot beer, Sight for the Blind. Two and a half years in the making, the hazy IPA was brewed by Coralville, Iowa's Backpocket Brewing. The can's label features a QR code with information about the nonprofit's mission and a link to donate online to a vision research fund. Hage has shared his mission with the brewers' guilds in Iowa and South Dakota and aims to partner with more than 100 Iowa craft brewers later this year. Once the nonprofit is well-established in Iowa, Hage will begin seeking partnerships with breweries beyond the state.

"The culture of craft beer brings people together," says Hage, who was inspired by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's worldwide campaign that raised millions to support those affected by the 2018 California wildfires. "The industry is just perfectly aligned to raising awareness in communities across Iowa and the country."

A Beacon of Hope

Blind Butcher Brewing is located a few miles northwest of Inwood, Iowa, in the middle of nowhere. But most who walk in the doors don't find it by accident. Every weekend, Hage meets people who have lost hope, need more of it, or want to know how they can help. The Hages' family story demonstrates how a vision, a community, and a belief can transform lives—one person at a time.

"We're shining a light on how we can bring this cure to people from around the world," says Hage. "It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, or how old you are. We signed on to the mission of leaving no one behind. That's what we're going to do."

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