Gerrit Melles, M.D., Ph.D. is a cornea specialist and founder of the Netherlands Institute for Innovative Ocular Surgery (NIIOS), the Melles Cornea Clinic Rotterdam, and Amnitrans EyeBank Rotterdam. His clinical work focuses on the management of corneal disorders, and he is also actively involved in research and development of ophthalmic surgical techniques.

The cornea is both the front window of the eye, and its most powerful focusing element. Corneal transplantation (keratoplasty) was first performed by Dr. Eduard Zirm in 1905. For a hundred years thereafter, this procedure restored corneal clarity to millions of cornea-blind sufferers by surgically removing and replacing, with a donor graft, the full thickness cornea (penetrating keratoplasty, PK). But in the most common forms of corneal opacification, only the inner corneal layer is diseased or injured. This inner layer (the endothelium) is responsible for keeping the overlying cornea dehydrated and clear.

In 1998, Dr. Melles invented endothelial keratoplasty (EK) to replace only the diseased inner layer of the cornea, while retaining and clearing the overlying corneal stroma. A full thickness hole in the cornea is never created. Beyond conceiving of this challenging procedure, he brilliantly executed it and refined it to be successfully adopted by cornea colleagues, so that EK has since revolutionized corneal surgery worldwide. Endothelial keratoplasty replaced penetrating keratoplasty in 2012 as the most common form of corneal transplantation performed in the United States.

With endothelial keratoplasty, nearly all of the worst complications of PK disappeared, including disappointing visual outcomes, and high rates of graft failure and rejection.  Whereas “mean” visual acuity after PK is 20/40, and this acuity often takes more than a year to attain, 80% of patients achieve 20/25 visual acuity within the first month after descemet membrane endothelial keratoplasty (DMEK).

There are no suture or wound healing problems after EK, quite unlike after PK.  As a result, not only are operated patients happier, but there are more patients who can be helped, since visual dysfunctions previously thought “too mild” to risk the relatively high complications of PK are suddenly eligible for the safer and more predictably successful EK operation.

Beyond introducing EK, Dr. Melles has continued to refine EK surgical and eye banking techniques over the ensuing two decades. He has developed instruments and medical devices required for these techniques; pioneered the use of vital staining solutions such as Vision Blue® and Membrane Blue® for ophthalmic surgeries; and developed the Surgicube® for performing ophthalmic surgeries under sterile conditions in any clinical setting.

In his free time, Dr. Melles is an amateur composer and founded the Melles Classical Music Foundation (MCMF) that organizes concerts with the MCMF Orchestra, directed by Martin
Haunhorst, Concert Master of a German orchestra, who also received bilateral DMEK in the Melles Cornea Clinic Rotterdam. For solo parts during concerts, young, starting musicians (< 21 years of age) are invited, enabling them to gain public exposure and experience in playing with an orchestra.

The Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education and BrightFocus Foundation are pleased to present the 2017 Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research to Gerrit Melles, M.D., Ph.D. As a Helen Keller Laureate, Dr. Melles has expressed pride in having been connected with the life and achievements of Helen Keller, “a woman who won an impossible battle against darkness and silence and made her fellow sufferers the beneficiaries of her victory”.