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Scientists, donors gather for symposium to fight blindness

It’s hard to cut steak in the dark, even harder to get a bite-sized piece neatly to one’s mouth.

More than 200 attendees experienced this awkward meal at a “Dining in the Dark” fundraiser hosted in Boston Tuesday night by the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

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Donors, scientists and venture capitalists ate blindfolded, for a brief taste of the affliction they are trying to cure.

“This is really the site where the research got started,’’ said Gordon Gund, founder and chairman of the Maryland-based foundation he co-founded in 1971, upon losing his own vision.

The organization is looking to raise half-a-billion dollars in just 10 years, to finance research and gene therapies for 10 million Americans struggling with vision loss.

The dinner was a precurser to an all-day symposium Wednesday (at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel) featuring a host of doctors, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and pharmaceutical executives who are all working on retinal innovation.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Langer, a major medical innovator and founder of at least two dozen companies, was scheduled to speak in the morning session, after having received the foundation’s Visionary Award on Tuesday night.

Langer, a chemical engineer, talked about the many job rejections he received after first finishing his doctorate at MIT in 1974. Even when he finally broke into science, he recalled giving a talk about one of his early areas of work, getting blood vessels to stop growing. Afterwards, the scientists in the room told him, “We don’t believe anything you just said.”

Today, Langer has no shortage of people listening to him, including Terry McGuire, a partner at Polaris Partners, a Waltham venture firm that has invested in more than a dozen of Langer’s companies. Together, those companies have $1 billion in annual revenue, McGuire said.

Describing the scope of Langer’s work, McGuire said, “2.5 billion people could one day be touched by a Langer technology.”

The Langer Lab at MIT has worked on areas of research from cancer and drug delivery to a polio vaccine and tissue engineering.

This week’s symposium, the latest example of technology and money meeting up in Boston, is geared to getting work on about 200 genes involving vision “from the lab into the clinic,’’ as several participants said.

Dr. David Guyer, founder of EyeTech Pharmaceuticals Inc., also received a Visionary Award on Tuesday night. He is now a partner at the venture firm SV Life Sciences in Boston.

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