Fabricating cures for Blindness

By Pramila Komanduri

Two Blind Brothers is the name of a clothing company in New York City which was started by two brothers, Bradford and Bryan Manning, who have had Stargardt’s disease since they were young children. Both brothers went on to participate in sports and complete their college education from the University of Virginia in spite of the disease which causes progressive loss of central vision in the eyes. Recognizing that sense of touch is important for the visually impaired, the Manning brothers developed the idea of creating clothing which feels good to the touch. All garments come with a metal tag which is embossed with the word ‘brother’ in Braille. As both brothers have full-time jobs outside of the clothing company they are able to donate all proceeds from it towards research for cures for blindness. Pramila Komanduri spoke to Bradford and Bryan, here are excerpts from the interview.

Did you have to help each other in dealing with the deterioration in vision when you were children and how did you do that?

Yes, definitely. There is no perfect guide for how to live your life. So a lot of challenges required trial and error. Bradford was diagnosed first and faced a lot of those issues himself, but we share a lot of things that we’ve learned from each other. Mostly we adopted an attitude and framework for approaching issues that involved being assertive, using humor, and a willingness to make mistakes.

What support did you get from your parents and others in meeting vision challenges at home, school and elsewhere?

Our parents set the standard for how we interpreted our condition. As a kid, you model a lot of your attitudes after your parents. We are grateful that they embraced our vision impairment as simply one of the many challenges in life. We never really felt especially disadvantaged because our vision was rarely, if ever, spoken about in that way. Even in extreme circumstances, in which vision was a major factor, such as playing baseball or lacrosse, our parents let us figure out our own limitations.

Did the University of Virginia offer any support while you studied there?

Yes, they had an entire department dedicated to helping students with different impairments. We found them to be generous with their support.

It seems that you were both involved in sports while growing up. How did you manage that with the progressive vision impairment?

We tried a lot of sports. Bradford was a swimmer and still has enough vision today to do so. Naturally, we found that certain sports were more conducive to our abilities. Bryan played football and lacrosse in high school, and in those cases, he adapted his role on the field to fit what he was capable of. Ultimately, he gravitated towards track and field as a shot putter and runner.

Are you still active in sports or physical activities as adults?

Bryan is still an avid runner. He ran the Chicago marathon and plans to run the Dublin marathon in Ireland in 2017. Bradford still swims and works out regularly.

When and how did you get the idea to make clothes with a focus on the visually impaired?

We always have used “touch” to evaluate quality. As any visually impaired person knows, shopping is difficult. When in a store we first focus on the feeling of the material before we see the colours, name brand, or the price. One day we were shopping together and coincidentally purchased the same shirt based on this method. It got us talking about the importance of the fabric, which inspired us to look at doing a clothing line.

Does your market span across all types of customers, not just visually impaired?

Yes, anyone who wants an extremely comfortable, well-designed casual shirt is a good customer.

Did you face any challenges in launching this enterprise in a competitive retail clothing sales market?

We still face them. We are so fortunate to have a strong identifiable brand. People love to share our story, which helped the launch. That said, production and operating any small business requires a ton of work across many disciplines, many of which we are new at.

Do you collaborate with designers on what kind of products you want created and sold through your company?

We haven’t done any collaboration yet. We want to find the right partner, but we are open to it. Sunglasses would be interesting for us to collaborate on considering that they are so important to protecting the eyes, especially for people with our condition.

Since the clothing company’s proceeds go directly to research, is it a non-profit company?

We do not take any salary or profits out of the company. We haven’t structured ourselves as a 501c3, but we may convert it to a charity. It’s just something we haven’t evaluated in our first year.

What areas of medical research have you decided to invest in with the clothing company’s proceeds?

We are funding a lot of pre-clinical researchers looking at gene, stem cell, and pharmacological therapies. There is a program between the Foundation Fighting Blindness and the Harrington Project that we are particularly interested in which gives grants along with business support to moving promising research into commercial enterprises. These programs require a lot of money, but we are excited to see that the science is validated.

Do you see any particular research as being promising in delivering solutions for your area of focus?
Yes, but we also fund research across a lot of eye conditions outside of our own as well. Right now there are exciting trials being done by companies like Spark Therapeutics, RetroSense, and Alkeus. For example, Alkeus is working on a new type of Vitamin A for people with our disease. This new Vitamin A is metabolized in a way that hopefully prevents vision loss for people with Stargardt’s disease.
How do you make time for your regular jobs, the clothing company and investigating the medical research?
In many cases, we don’t! Bradford is nearly full-time on the clothing line. We leverage a lot of great resources and contacts at major biotech firms and national organizations to help direct research. It’s definitely overwhelming at times.
Do you both do any outreach to the visually impaired and if so how?
We receive messages every day from folks with eye disease including a lot of mothers of children who are newly diagnosed. We’d like to build more community-outreach.
What is your vision for the future for yourselves and the clothing company?
We’d like to continue to build this into a national brand, which will also raise money and awareness at the same time.
Who were your sources of inspiration and what words of inspiration do you have for others who are visually impaired?
We have a lot of mentors, but the top spot goes to our parents. We would encourage others to embrace challenges and failures because that is where almost all of your growth and lasting satisfaction will come from.