One year ago this week, Massachusetts Eye and Ear officially became a member of Partners HealthCare. And what a year it’s been!

Just days before the exciting announcement last April, history was made in a Mass. Eye and Ear operating room. A surgical team performed the very first commercial application of Luxturna, the world’s first gene therapy drug for inherited disease to be approved by the FDA, on a young patient with a hereditary eye condition. Weeks later, the patient’s sight improved significantly. The surgery kicked off a new era in medicine, where patients with a form of inherited blindness can receive a gene therapy drug — not as part of a clinical trial, but as part of a treatment plan. Since that groundbreaking procedure, Mass. Eye and Ear continued to thrive as a member of the Partners system.

Three more Mass. Eye and Ear patients have received Luxturna to preserve and restore their vision. Meanwhile, ophthalmologists and vision researchers are working to advance other treatments for retinal blindness in the lab through basic science research and through clinical trials.

Five years ago, there were no clinical trials studying gene therapies for retinal blindness at Mass. Eye and Ear. Today there are eight.

In perhaps another medical first, Mass. Eye and Ear will soon participate in the first study of CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing in humans. But the recent success and momentum in tackling genetic conditions of the eye is just a snapshot of the pioneering work happening every day at Mass. Eye and Ear.

For patients with head and neck cancers, Mass. Eye and Ear has a long history of not just striving to save lives, but also optimizing quality of life after surgery. As head and neck cancers sometimes require aggressive surgeries, oncologists are constantly innovating new surgical approaches that preserve patients’ abilities to speak, swallow, eat, and function better after treatment.

Robotic surgery is one way that Mass. Eye and Ear surgeons have sought to improve quality of life for their patients. Using a surgical robot, head and neck surgeons can reach tumors in the back of the throat with tiny instruments, and these approaches often allow patients to avoid long hospital stays and extensive rehabilitation. Mass. Eye and Ear has partnered with area hospitals for the past several years to provide these leading-edge techniques to their patients. This past December, Mass. Eye and Ear was thrilled to bring robotic surgery closer to home — to its operating rooms at 243 Charles Street.

In addition to surgical techniques, new medical therapies in cancer care, including immunotherapy, are an area of focus for head and neck oncologists. Collaborating with the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Cancer Center, head and neck surgeons at Mass. Eye and Ear are able to offer patients with metastatic or recurrent head and neck cancers several ongoing clinical trials using immunotherapy. Much more research is needed to understand whether immunotherapy can effectively treat tumors of the head and neck, but its effectiveness in other cancers, like skin cancer, is tremendously encouraging. Together with MGH, Mass. Eye and Ear is proud to be a part of a combined research effort to study and improve outcomes for patients with head and neck cancer with immunotherapy.

“Immunotherapy has already made a world of difference for skin cancer patients,” said Derrick T. Lin, MD, chief of head and neck surgical oncology at Mass. Eye and Ear. “Skin cancer used to be a death sentence for a lot of people and now it’s not. We are hoping the same will be true for head and neck cancers.”

From increasing clinical trial access to combined research efforts, it’s been an exciting first year for Mass. Eye and Ear as part of the Partners system. We continue to build upon the hospital’s long legacy of pioneering new treatments for diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, throat, head and neck — checking off one medical milestone after another.

Photo header: Erin Hennessey, Research Technologist, and Jason Commander, MD, Associate Director, Inherited Retinal Disorders Service, in a Mass. Eye and Ear research lab.