Have you ever thought about which sense would be your worst to lose? For me, it’s sight. Blindness–living in a world without light–is already the fate of 11 million people in the United States that have some form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a number that is expected to double to nearly 22 million by 2050. For most victims, vitamins known as the AREDS2 formula and pain relief are the best treatments currently available. Neither provide too much promise.
While AMD is the leading cause of blindness for people 55 and older, younger people are also at risk of vision loss. Juvenile macular degeneration (JMD) is the term for several inherited and rare diseases that affect children and young adults, including Stargardt’s disease and Best disease, which can cause central vision loss that often starts in childhood or young adulthood. Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is another genetic disorder that can wipe out vision by age 40. It is estimated that RP affects roughly 1 in 4,000 people, both in the United States and worldwide.
Lucky for us, there are more than a few science-inclined entrepreneurs floating around who are serious about staving off blindness. Some are interested in injectables while others are favoring fashion as the route to protecting one of our most precious senses. Here are five startups to watch in the space…
The LambdaVision implant, which is inserted behind the retina to replace the function of damaged cells, began animal trials in October last year. The implant is a thin, flexible membrane made from a protein that is grown in the company’s lab at UConn Health in Farmington.
Derived from a saltwater microbe called Halobacterium salinarum, the protein, called bacteriorhodopsin, can convert light into energy. Each implant starts with a scaffold made from polyester fibers which is then dipped into the protein solution, left to air dry for a few seconds, then dipped again and again, about 200 times, to create a membrane about one millimeter thick. It takes two to three days for each of LambdaVision’s three robotic stations to finish one implant.
LambdaVision’s goal is to target patients who are completely blind first. The company anticipates there will be at least a $1.5 billion market for RP alone. LambdaVision secured $225,000 in funding in 2014, with funding now up to $2.4 million.
Syracuse-based biotech startup Ichor Therapeutics is also developing drug therapies designed to work on both AMD and JMD – enzymes derived from several sources, which will be available as an injectable. Early results suggest these will be effective methods to treat early, moderate, and late stages of AMD. Other currently available treatments mainly focus on the late stage only, leading to many patients going untreated. With Ichor therapy, millions of individuals could retain or regain their sight.
Ichor Therapeutics is currently developing lead candidates and assessing safety and efficacy in mouse models of the disease, and has so far attracted more than $3.2 million from investors, foundations and local government.
Cell Cure Neurosciences
Jerusalem-based Cell Cure Neurosciences is developing a treatment of injectable human retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells — the essential “helpers” for the eye’s photoreceptor cells — produced from pluripotent stem cells using a propriety technology.
CEO Charles Irving explained that with age, RPEs get run down and fail to provide the photoreceptors with the nutrients and pigments they need to function, “The photoreceptor cells can only make it a little longer on their own before dying, and that’s irreversible. Our goal is to enable, for the first time, transplantation with new RPE cells so we can save the photoreceptors that haven’t already died and stop the progression of the disease.”
Cell Cure Neurosciences’ OpRegen is conducting clinical trials for advanced AMD and has won fast-track approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for further trials in the United States.
By combining augmented reality and virtual reality, London-based startup GiveVision has created a vision aid, SightPlus, for people with severe sight impairments. 2018 Edison Award nominee and winner of a WIRED Health 2017 Startup Award, GiveVisions’s SightPlus works by beaming light into the parts of the eye that are still functional, to create a clearer picture of their surroundings and help fill in gaps. It works by combining the capabilities of a near-distance magnifier and long-distance telescope and is designed for applications during stationary use such as reading, watching TV, recognizing people’s faces and a variety of hobbies. It is not designed to be a mobility aid and cannot be used to walk around or to drive.
The next stage for SightPlus is to make it smaller, to a size and form more akin to Google Glass. GiveVision has raised £500,000 to help bring that version to market in 2018. Also, on the 2018 roadmap, to showcase GiveVision’s work in the US.
Two Blind Brothers
While New York-based brothers Bryan and Bradford Manning are not themselves working on finding a cure, all the profits from their company, Two Blind Brothers, go to finding a cure for JMD-caused blindness. In fact, the company was founded with sole purpose of funding blindness research and so that they could be a part of finding a cure. Why? Bryan and Bradford both suffer from a type of JMD known as Stargardt’s Disease which has rendered them both legally blind. With designs influenced by the culture of New York, every item is exceptionally soft so that when you touch one of their garments you can “Feel The Difference.”
Gail is a Chicago-based food scientist who writes for leading US and European food and technology publications. A devotee of all things shiny, electronic and buzzing, with a passion for building on-line communities and conservation, she is an entrepreneur and founder of a sustainability and social media startup who moonlights on weekends as DJ Moongirl on Moonalice Radio. Clients range from rock bands and media companies to high-tech startups.
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