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Scott Oliver | Vitale-Schlessman Endowed Chair Retinal Diseases | CU Ophthalmology

CU School of Medicine Names New Endowed Chair in Retinal Diseases

A $1.5 million gift from Dolores Schlessman awarded Scott Oliver, MD, the inaugural Vitale-Schlessman Endowed Chair in Retinal Diseases to support life-changing research and treatments for complex, blinding diseases.

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Written by Rachel Wittel on November 16, 2021

Scott Oliver, MD, chief of the Retina Service and director of the Eye Cancer Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has been named the inaugural Vitale-Schlessman Endowed Chair in Retinal Diseases at the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center, effective Nov. 1, 2021. 

The endowed chair position is supported by a $1.5 million gift from Dolores Schlessman and is also being matched by the CU Department of Ophthalmology to bolster momentum in the development of leading-edge research and treatment in complex retinal diseases.

Oliver is also associate director of the Vitreoretinal Diseases and Surgery Fellowship and served as medical director of the UCHealth Eye Surgery Center since its grand opening in 2015. His research focuses on improving visual outcomes in the treatment for eye cancer and other blinding diseases. His clinical practice encompasses a broad spectrum of retinal diseases and tumors of the eye, including choroidal melanoma, retinoblastoma, retinopathy of prematurity, familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, and complex retinal detachments. Oliver is considered one of the region’s premier clinician scientists.

“It’s been only 13 years since he joined us. It’s just been remarkable what he’s done,” chair of the CU Department of Ophthalmology Naresh Mandava, MD, says. “He brought an eye cancer program to University of Colorado where we’re able to treat the most complex eye cancers in kids and adults, specifically cancers in the retina, such as retinoblastoma and melanoma. On top of that, he took on the role of bringing complex retina surgery to children in the eight-state Rocky Mountain region, so kids with complex retinal detachment from retinopathy of prematurity or degenerative eye diseases could receive this highly specialized care. Scott is one of the top surgeons in the world in all of these areas.”

CU School of Medicine Dean John J. Reilly, Jr., MD, adds, “It’s a big deal in the world of medicine to have an endowed chair, and the incumbent of that endowed chair is recognized by everybody on the campus as somebody who’s sustained a level of excellence within their chosen field and has been described in our work.”

With nearly 20 years of experience in the medical field, Oliver completed his ophthalmology residency at the CU School of Medicine in 2006, moving onto a prestigious fellowship specializing in vitreoretinal diseases and surgery at the Jules Stein Eye Institute - UCLA Medical Center with additional focus in ophthalmic oncology. He returned home to CU in 2008.

“Dr. Mandava was a key leader of the group building something very, very special here in this department,” Oliver says. “CU’s Department of Ophthalmology 25 years ago was small, and our he had a vision for us to become a nationally renowned department in clinical care, research, education and innovation. It was an exciting time to take a chance.”

Since Oliver joined the CU faculty, he’s developed a referral network for ocular oncology throughout the region and created both an ocular melanoma registry and a retinoblastoma registry cataloguing all patients treated over the last decade. Leveraging the advantages of an integrated team across different hospital systems, he most notably developed a multispecialty program with UCHealth and Children’s Hospital Colorado for the treatment of retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina that almost always occurs in children younger than six years old.

“The amazing thing about taking care of a disease like retinoblastoma is that, as rare and as terrifying as it is for a family with a newborn who has cancer that could be fatal if it’s in both eyes, we can give them hope that their child will survive,” says Oliver, who is also a CU Cancer Center member. “Their child will keep their eyes. Their child will be able to see. We’ve been able to achieve a 97% survival long term for kids with this disease. We’ve been able to preserve vision in almost every single case.”

Schlessman’s gift not only supports the expansion of this work, it’s personal, too. Schlessman was inspired to find cures for blinding eye diseases after a close friend lost her vision. After establishing Oliver’s endowment, the two discovered they both graduated from the same high school in Colorado Springs, giving their common cause some additional meaning.

“The need is there, and the need is huge,” he says. “Dolores knew how important the need was in the community to provide care for frightening rare diseases. The department and I hope to take her vision and truly bring what’s possible into focus.”

“The entire part of this country is looking to our campus for its specialty care of complex disease,” Oliver continues. “We have patients coming from New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, and multiple other surrounding states, with the same overwhelming message. They weren’t quite sure where to turn, and we gave them a place to go.”

The department’s home, the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center, is now one of the largest eye centers in the country and serves patients from all over the world.