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Louisiana State University Eye Center will get the first of what could be a national network of laboratories to study a blinding hereditary disease.

"Retinitis pigmentosa has been treated like a stepchild in ophthalmology because people haven't had the means of helping people except observation," said retinal specialist Gholam A. Peyman, who will direct the center.The incurable ailment destroys sight by killing off retinal cells that receive light. It strikes one in 3,000 people in the United States. About 100,000 Americans are believed to have it.

The research project is being underwritten by Retinitis Pigmentosa International, a private non-profit organization based in Woodland Hills, Calif. The group has $200,000 for the laboratory and hopes to raise about $1 million more, said Helen Harris, the group's founder and president.

"It's the beginning of a big dream," said Harris, 55, who has lost most of her vision to retinitis pigmentosa and has two sons with the disease.

Center personnel will conduct basic research, see patients and build a data bank.