By Rebecca Salowe
Scheie Vision Summer 2019
Many residents of Philadelphia know Councilman Allan Domb as the real estate mogul who owns many of the city’s buildings, especially in Rittenhouse Square. Others recognize him as a member of the Philadelphia City Council. At the Scheie Eye Institute, we see another dimension to the Councilman: his passion for vision research. Drawing from his family’s personal experience with eye disease, he serves as a strong advocate for vision research in the city of Philadelphia.
Born in Jersey City in 1955, Councilman Domb attended college at American University at night, graduating in December 1976 in three and a half years with a degree in Marketing. He moved to Philadelphia after graduation at the age of 21 and sold security systems for Phelps Time Lock Service while earning his real estate license at Temple University. In 1983, he opened his own real estate brokerage firm. Today, his firm owns numerous properties in Philadelphia, earning Councilman Domb the nickname “Philly’s Condo King.”
In 2015, Allan Domb won the Democratic nomination for an at-large seat in the Philadelphia City Council. Having spent many years growing his real estate business and advocating for the rights of property owners, he recognized other areas of great need in the city he loved, such as lowering the poverty rate and promoting job growth. He won the election and took office in 2016.
Lesser known to the public, however, is his family’s experience with eye disease. When his son was less than a year old, Councilman Domb and his son’s mother observed a problem with one of their son’s eyes. “We noticed that his eye was not really following us,” he said. “We took him to the Scheie Eye Institute, where Alexander Brucker, MD saw him.”
A diagnosis of morning glory syndrome soon followed. Morning glory syndrome is an incredibly rare congenital deformity that results from failure of the optic nerve to properly form. Symptoms include poor visual acuity and retinal detachment in about a third of patients. In the case of the Councilman’s son, the condition was unilateral, so his other eye maintained normal vision.
“It was a constant concern of his mother and I,” Councilman Domb recalled. “There was a lot of stress surrounding the whole situation when he was diagnosed. We had to be sure to protect his good eye. That was a constant worry – still is – but more so when he was younger. We kept saying to ourselves, why did this happen to him?”
Other than ocular realignment surgery, few treatments are available for morning glory syndrome. Nevertheless, his son did not allow the diagnosis to affect his life, always playing sports growing up (and wearing rec specs for extra protection). “Looking at the glass half full, fortunately, he was born with this condition and never missed the vision,” said Councilman Domb. Today, his son is 36 and is married with three kids. He works in private equity and lives in Boston. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to get him to move back to Philadelphia!” the Councilman joked.
After his son’s diagnosis, Councilman Domb also switched his eye care to Dr. Brucker. The two began a relationship that has lasted for several decades. In fact, in 2018, when Dr. Brucker was inducted as the Inaugural Chairholder for the Founder’s Professorship in Retinal and Vitreous Diseases in Ophthalmology, Councilman Domb surprised him and spoke at the ceremony.
The Councilman has also become involved in other vision-related causes in the city. In 2018, he spoke at the Philadelphia VisionWalk about his son’s experience with morning glory syndrome. “Seeing all the people there was amazing,” he remarked. “Their energy and passion for this is unbelievable. Whatever we can do to restore people’s vision is huge and it’s a life-changing event.”
He was particularly excited about the presence of Spark Therapeutics. A Philadelphia-based gene therapy company founded in 2013, Spark commercialized the gene therapy developed over many years by Drs. Jean Bennett and Albert Maguire of the Scheie Eye Institute. In 2017, Luxturna (brand name) became the first gene therapy ever approved by the FDA for treatment of an inherited disease. Today, Spark employs over 300 employees and maintains its headquarters in Philadelphia. The company was recently acquired by Roche and continues to investigate gene therapy for other untreated diseases.
Spark is only one of a growing number of companies that have sprouted from research at University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) – a fact that has not escaped the notice of the Councilman. Over the next three years, Penn plans to deploy $50 million into 10 biotechnology companies that were founded based on UPenn/CHOP research. As part of this agreement, the companies must maintain headquarters in Philadelphia and collect larger funding commitments from major investment firms. The goal of this initiative is to establish these companies in Philadelphia, rather than growing them in more traditional locations such as Massachusetts or California.
Councilman Domb has a unique perspective on the benefits of these initiatives. “The University of Pennsylvania is now one of the biggest job creators in the city,” he said. With these researchers likely having a high average income, he anticipates positive effects for other jobs in the city. “We could have 20,000-25,000 new employees in the city making these salaries, which is great for the economic job multiplier.”
The Councilman plans to continue to support the University, and particularly vision research, in the future. “Universities do what we can’t do in government. They produce jobs. They produce employment. They make opportunities for residents of this city,” he said. “We can’t do that in the public sector, but we can help and assist the private world to achieve these goals.”