Recent Investments in Vision Research

Fighting Blindness has supported innovative vision research in laboratories in Ireland for the past thirty years. We are proud that many of these seeds of basic research investment, funded by our members and supporters, have begun to take the next leap towards clinical trial application.

However, we know that this next stage and developing clinical-grade therapies requires a huge injection of finance. These funds often come from the pharmaceutical industry, venture capital investment and other sources. Thankfully, due to sustained basic research support, in particular from patient-led charities such as Fighting Blindness, the pipeline of research coming down the line for eye diseases has never been stronger. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, start-up companies that address eye problems drew $848.9 million in 2013, and this was sustained through the first half of 2014, making the eyes the organ most attractive to venture capitalists.

We have selected five examples of these types of investment that are aligned to our five pillars of research to demonstrate the impact that research funding can have on spinning out, and delivering new and innovative therapies.

Gene Therapy

Spark Therapeutics is a gene therapy company that grew out of research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, it was launched in 2013. Spark are developing gene based therapies for a range of inherited retinal conditions such as Leber congenital amaurosis caused by mutations in the RPE65 gene (LCA2) and choroideremia. In May 2014, they attracted $72.8 million financing to expand and progress the development of their pipeline and continue their phase three trial in LCA2. Also in 2014, Spark signed a collaboration agreement with Ireland’s Genable Technologies Ltd to provide development advice and expertise to help expedite Genable’s lead therapeutic for rhodopsin-linked, dominant retinitis pigmentosa (RP) towards clinical trial.

Cell Therapy

The Wales Life Sciences Investment Fund recently committed £12.8 million to the British stem cell firm Reneuron to develop their proprietary human retinal progenitor cells (hRPCs) for the treatment of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Their therapy ReN003 is currently in the late stages of pre-clinical testing in the Schepens Eye Research Institute in the Massachusetts Eye and Ear and this investment will help them apply for a clinical trial application this year.

Drug Therapies for Retinal Degenerations

An area generating a large amount of interest in the retina field at the moment is the “repurposing” of drugs that are effective in one condition for use in an unrelated disease. An example of this is a recent study in the journal Science that suggests that a class of drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS may be suitable for the treatment of the prevalent, dry form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Closer to home, Fighting Blindness are currently supporting Prof Tom Cotter of UCC, who is investigating the use of the contraceptive pill Norgestrel for the treatment of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Prof Cotter recently received €1.2 million in funding from Science Foundation Ireland to further progress this work.

Retinal Implant Technology

Over the past couple of years a couple of companies have brought to market retina implant products that aim to deliver a form of artificial vision to people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and they are soon to be joined by the French firm Pixium Vision. Pixium was spun out of academic research by leading scientists in French institutions in 2011. Pixium are developing IRIS, a vision restoration system (VRS) for people who have lost all of their vision. IRIS uses a retinal implant that electrically stimulates the remaining nerve cells in the retina. Patients wear glasses containing a mini-camera that is connected to a pocket computer, which processes the image into a signal that is sent to the implant to stimulate the optic nerve. IRIS is in a European clinical trial, and Pixium Vision plan to seek CE Mark approval, with a European launch slated for next year. Earlier this year, the firm received €6.9 million in financing from the SIGHT AGAIN public-private project against blindness. This will help finance their new and improved system, called Prima, which is due to begin clinical trial in 2016.

Population Studies

Key research initially supported by Fighting Blindness led to the establishment of the Macular Pigment Research Group (MPRG) in Waterford Institute of Technology in 2002. The MPRG are now one of the foremost groups in the world studying macular pigment, and recently published a pivotal paper in the British Journal of Ophthalmology detailing the prevalence of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in the Irish population. This is the first study of its kind in Ireland and will help to inform eye care professionals and policymakers involved in the delivery and planning of care for people with AMD. Earlier this month, the MPRG celebrated the opening of their new €4 million vision research facility in Waterford supported by The Howard Foundation, UK.

For more information about vision research please visit the ‘Cure’ section of our website www.FightingBlindness.ie/Cure.