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Article Date: 10/1/2009

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Robert Olin Breece, OD: A Tribute
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Robert Olin Breece, OD: A Tribute

BY EDWARD S. BENNETT, OD, MSED

He was a pioneer. He was a trailblazer. He was a clinician. He was an innovator. Perhaps above all, he was a contact lens visionary whose contributions to the eyecare profession are, in a word, prolific. He exhibited an incredible passion for specialty contact lenses, and his sudden passing on Aug. 10 was far too soon.

Like so many innovative lens designers, Rob had an engineering background. His college career began with a physics and engineering emphasis. He earned a Masters in Engineering degree from the University of Virginia in 1979, one year after receiving his Doctor of Optometry degree from the Southern California College of Optometry. He then established the largest contact lens specialty practice in the Washington, D.C., area. During this time he became the founder and CEO of Applied Optical Corporation, a producer of soft and GP specialty contact lenses.

He left private practice and from 1990 to 1999 was president of BioMed Devices Corporation, a company consulting in all phases of the industry. In 1999, he founded MedLens Innovations (originally Innovations in Sight) and served as president.

Contact Lens Innovator

It can be said that Dr. Newton Wesley and his colleague Dr. George Jessen were primarily responsible for contact lenses becoming a mainstream modality for refractive correction. For Rob, the area of specialty contact lenses has few peers. He prided himself in the ability to develop and manufacture a lens for every conceivable refractive error for every conceivable patient. His list of patents, clinical studies and lens designs are too numerous to mention.

He is perhaps best known for his work with mini-scleral lenses and invented one of the first of these designs, the Jupiter lens (MedLens Innovations and Essilor). He was a trailblazer and champion of these designs and their applications, allowing many patients to be successful lens wearers. He developed many other designs, including an orthokeratology design and a foldable IOL to correct refractive error.

With the understanding that we never know what tomorrow may bring, it is a blessing that Rob received two prestigious awards within the past year. In November he received the 2008 Contact Lens Manufacturers Association (CLMA) Creative Design and Process Award. In June he was awarded the American Optometric Association Contact Lens and Cornea Section Achievement Award. As GP Committee Chair of the CLMA he was an advocate of GP education and of the GP Lens Institute.

The last time I spoke to Rob was at Optometry's Meeting in June. As is consistent with his personality, Rob was very excited about establishing his new laboratory as well as future efforts focused on scleral lens education.

Although he will no longer be there to mentor, his legacy will be the designs he developed, the clinicians he taught and encouraged to fit the most challenging cases imaginable, and his spirit, which epitomized not material gain, but a desire to help others. He provided thousands with the greatest gift imaginable: the gift of vision.

In Their Own Words

We asked colleagues and friends to share their thoughts about Rob. Here are a few comments.

Christine Sindt, OD: "When professional colleagues spend so much time together working on projects, stories are shared and personal relationships build. To me, Rob was not a contact lens manufacturer. He was a colleague, a mentor, and a good friend. He was a brilliant contact lens designer, but even more importantly, he had the passion to make it happen. His enthusiasm for contact lenses and patient care was infectious. He knew that every design could impact someone's life, and that was more exciting to him than making money.

"He wanted to share his work, and we would talk for hours about lens designs and research. In the last several months, his main focus was building the Scleral Lens Education Foundation to educate others on the benefits and techniques of scleral contact lenses. This will be his legacy."

Donald Sanders, MD, PhD, president and CEO of MedLens Innovations: "He was truly the industry leader in the area of medically indicated contact lenses and especially the scleral lens (Jupiter brand). This is currently widely used for keratoconus and post-LASIK corneal irregularities when alternative GP designs will not center or cause intolerable bearing forces on the central cornea, and soft lenses cannot provide good vision.

"Dr. Breece developed Rev Eyes (MedLens), a soft reverse geometry lens when a standard soft or GP design will not fit eyes in which the central corneal curvature is flatter than the paracentral corneal curve. He also developed I-Kone (Valley Contax), a GP lens with aspheric front and back surfaces for keratoconus when alternative GP designs will not center or cause intolerable bearing forces on the central cornea. Another he developed, HydroKone (MedLens), is a soft lens for keratoconus treatment in spherical and toric designs. It is useful for all stages of the disease, but most often employed in advanced keratoconus when the patient can't tolerate GP lenses or GP lenses are scarring the cornea. Dr. Breece also developed K-Max (MedLens), a large-diameter, full cornea GP for regular to mildly irregular corneas. It provides good comfort and centration."

Josh Adams, Valley Contax, vice president and lab manager: "Rob Breece meant so many things to so many people. On a professional level, I admired him for many reasons. He accomplished so much in his career, but what really seemed to matter to him was the life improvement of so many all over the world. The products that he specialized in were so unique that they usually meant the ‘last resort’ to many patients' visual functionality.

"This pattern of practice and manufacturing led to the advancement of patient care and the enhancement of life to millions of patients who had no other options. He always reminded me in subtle ways that we were truly in the business of human service, and we have a tremendous daily opportunity to help the world with the gift of sight.

"Rob was never interested in the mass-produced, mass market, high-volume lenses. Rob was interested in designing the lenses that nobody else could, and making them work."

Tim Leso, MedLens Innovations: "I met Dr. Breece at a CLMA meeting many years ago. We sat down and immediately clicked. We both shared a passion for the contact lens industry. We had a mutual dedication and devotion for the contact lens industry. We both agreed that we needed to collaborate at some point in the future. I was a ‘diamond in the rough,’ and Dr. Breece was the ‘jeweler’ to give me the finishing touches. I joined MedLens Innovations in June 2009 as vice president of operations. I built a strong relationship with him and he quickly became my mentor. We made a vow to each other to revive and bring excitement back into the contact lens market with a new facility in San Diego for education and research and development of new products of ‘new’ medically indicated contact lenses to help compromised corneas.

"We had also created the Scleral Lens Education Foundation, which would be headed by Drs. Paul Blaze, Greg DeNaeyer, and Christine Sindt, to educate practitioners on fitting scleral lenses."

Janice Schramm, immediate past president, CLMA and president, Valley Contax: "Rob was passionate about the role of a contact lens manufacturer and the importance of the relationship of the manufacturer and the contact lens fitter to the success of the patients and their lenses. He knew and fully understood our industry's purpose to provide the best vision possible.

"He had a unique and keen sense of designing lenses. His designs were instrumental in giving vision to people who thought they would never see clearly again. He was a true visionary in every sense of the word. His willingness to serve on the CLMA Board of Directors and his contributions in his role as the GP Committee Chairman had a tremendous influence on the future of the CLMA and the GPLI.

"He was a man who lived his days to the fullest and, as Benjamin Franklin would have endorsed, whatever he did, he did it well." CLS


Dr. Bennett is an associate professor of optometry at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is executive director of the GP Lens Institute.



Contact Lens Spectrum, Issue: October 2009

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