On Friday, the Maryland-based Foundation for Fighting Blindness announced it has invested $250,000 in a vision-restoring therapy developed by Ann Arbor, MI-based startup RetroSense Therapeutics. The technology RetroSense uses was licensed from Wayne State University, where it was pioneered by anatomy and cell biology professor Zhuo-Hua Pan.
RetroSense works with a photosensitivy gene called Channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2) that’s found in blue-green algae. RetroSense has demonstrated in tests involving mice and monkeys that ChR2 can be administered into a degenerated retina to confer photosensitivity.
Sean Ainsworth, CEO of RetroSense Therapeutics, says the therapy spurs photo-insensitive receptors in a damaged retina to sense light signals and send those signals to the visual cortex which, over time, leads to restoration of sight.
“It’s fascinating that algae works in animal cells,” Ainsworth says. “The condition we’re pursuing is retinitis pigmentosa, and the animal studies have been very encouraging so far.”
Retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic eye disease estimated to affect 100,00 people in the U.S. alone. It typically manifests initially as night blindness and then progresses to tunnel vision or complete blindness.
Ainsworth says the next step is to test the ChR2 therapy in human clinical trials, which he estimates will begin in the first half of 2013. Although the investment from the Foundation for Fighting Blindness is meant to help move the early stage company toward that goal, RetroSense is also seeking “several million” from out-of-state VCs. Ainsworth says he’s also in discussions with the foundation for a “substantially larger” future investment.
“We’re small and lean and singularly focused on getting into clinical trials,” Ainsworth said.
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