I have had doctors stick needles in my eyes, so trust me when I tell you this: Not Fun. Eyeball injections are sometimes necessary to get drugs into hard-to-reach parts of the eye, but things can go wrong. Touch an eyelash on the way in, for instance, and you could inject bacteria as well; point the needle the wrong way and you could detach the retina. Eye drops? Problem there is that only about 5 percent of the drug actually gets into the eye—for certain eye problems, that keeps the dose of a drug far too low to be useful. How about taking a pill? You can, but there’s a barrier between the blood system and the eye that makes it very difficult to get drugs through, necessitating massive doses with potential side-effects. And only small-molecule drugs can get through at all. Anything based on a protein, DNA, or RNA, such as the RNA-interference drugs that people think have so much promise, is out of luck.
This is where Waltham-based EyeGate Pharma comes in. The company has developed a device to deliver various drugs, such as corticosteroids, antibiotics, and antivirals, into the eye. The technology is based on a process called iontophoresis, which takes advantage of the fact that like charges repel each other to essentially push the drugs in.
The EyeGate device is basically a small plastic cylinder that can be pressed against the white of the eye, with the cornea peeking through the center. The drug is dissolved in water and loaded into a foam ring inside the cylinder. Once the device is in place, the doctor switches on the power to an electrode at the back of the gizmo; the charge pushes the drug molecules out of the foam and into the eye.
“You don’t feel anything,” says Stephen From, EyeGate CEO. By controlling the strength of the current and the time the device runs, doctors can control exactly how much of the drug goes into the eye and how deep it penetrates. Depending on the drug, the treatment takes from one to five minutes. Occasionally it produces some redness in the eye, which quickly goes away, From says.
The eye conditions the company’s targeting first include uveitis—which is actually a suite of problems, all of which cause inflammation—and macular edema, a problem caused by such conditions as diabetic retinopathy that can potentially lead to blindness. It plans to reformulate generic drugs to work with the device, which has two advantages—as known entities, these drugs can get through the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process faster, but as reformulations they can be patented. EyeGate has about a dozen drugs in its reformulation pipeline right now, and plans to file for FDA permission to begin patient tests for the first one in a little over a month. From hopes that will lead to an initial approval in 2010. With the delivery system and the first drug approved, approvals for subsequent treatments should go faster, he says. “All the heavy lifting gets done with the first one.”
While EyeGate is not looking for new drugs itself, it’s making the delivery system available to those who are. From hopes having a method of getting drugs into the eye leads to development of treatments that hadn’t seemed feasible before. One particularly intriguing area might be in RNA interference, a Noble-prize winning technology that uses small RNA molecules to turn certain genes off. One of the potential stumbling blocks is how to deliver those molecules into actual cells. From says that not only can the EyeGate device get the RNAi drugs into the eye, it also causes, for reasons not fully understood, a transient change in cells’ membrane, so the molecules penetrate more easily.
About half a dozen companies are signed up to do feasibility studies on using EyeGate’s technology to deliver drugs they’re developing. Among them are companies working on RNA interference, but From won’t say who, citing non-disclosure agreements. At least one local RNAi, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, has listed eye disease as one of the targets for therapies it’s developing.
The journey to Boston for this technology has been circuitous. It was originally developed at the Bascom-Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami, and licensed to EyeGate , which was then based in Paris, in December 1999. The company spent its first five years focused on taking the Miami prototype and developing it into a marketable device, which it did with its initial $4 million funding. EyeGate’s management then started to think about drug development and raising the money that would be needed for clinical studies. Building up a business from nothing in France didn’t seem like a good idea to From, a Canadian who had been living in Europe.
“It’s a difficult thing to do in Paris,” he says. “Boston’s got to be one of the best places in the world to do that.”
The company moved here in September of 2006 and had a lab set up by January 2007. It’s got 20 employees and has raised two more rounds of capital, bringing the firm’s total funding to $31 million. In the latest round, announced last week, EyeGate raised $15 million from the likes of Medicis Capital, Ventech, Innoven Partenaires, and the Nexus Group. In addition to the original patent licensed from U. Miami, The company has developed its own intellectual property around its device.
So if, in a few years time, you go to the eye doctor for some complaint and he tries to stick a plastic gizmo on your eyeball, don’t complain. Just think how you’d feel if it were a needle.