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Cellular Dynamics Spinoff Aims to Develop Vision-Restoring Therapies

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Cellular Dynamics International is following a split with a spinoff.

The Madison, WI-based biotech, which earlier this month announced it divided the company into two business units, is now saying it has launched a new venture that will focus on developing medicines to treat diseases of the retina.

The new company, known as Opsis Therapeutics, was formed on July 31. However, Cellular Dynamics—which is also known as CDI, and was acquired by Tokyo-based Fujifilm last year—did not announce the creation of Opsis until earlier this week.

“We wanted to structure the [new] company in a way that gives it the flexibility of a startup, but also [leverages] the benefit, power, and quality that Fujifilm and CDI bring,” says Emile Nuwaysir, who is president of Opsis and will also continue serving as CDI’s president and chief operating officer.

David Gamm, an ophthalmologist who directs the McPherson Eye Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is Opsis’s chief scientific officer. He has a 49 percent ownership stake in the startup, while CDI controls the other 51 percent of shares, Nuwaysir says. CDI provided seed funding to Opsis, he says, though he declined to reveal the size of the investment.

Nuwaysir called Gamm a “world leader” in researching the biology of photoreceptor cells. These cells, which are also known as rods and cones, allow humans to see colors and in dim and dark light.

Gamm says that some of the work he has done at UW-Madison over the years involves making photoreceptor cells from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which CDI co-founder and stem cell pioneer James Thomson helped discover. The iPS cells can even be used to create whole retinas, Gamm says.

The decision to join Opsis stemmed in part from Gamm’s desire to help restore or improve the vision of patients, some of whom he cares for in clinical practice. As an example, he mentioned soldiers who have suffered retinal detachments as a result of blunt force trauma.

“[There] are patients I work with that I can’t do anything for—this is what drives me in this entire venture,” Gamm says. “We are currently in a position where we can’t do anything about a lot of injuries because you lose those rods and cones and there’s no way for the body to grow them back on its own. Until recently, there has been no way to have a source of cells for replacement.”

CDI has announced multiple partnerships with the National Eye Institute, including one in 2014 and another earlier this year. Nuwaysir says that those two contracts are focused in part on manufacturing retinal pigment epithelial cells, a layer of cells just outside the neurosensory retina. For now, Opsis is concentrating on diseases of the outer retina and photoreceptor cell therapy, he says.

Opsis will operate out of CDI’s offices. The startup has started hiring researchers to work there on a contract basis. Nuwaysir declined to share the exact number of contractors Opsis has brought on, saying only that “it’s a pretty large team.”

The company is likely to seek out additional financing as it grows and progresses, Nuwaysir says. One thing Opsis anticipates it will need funding for is filing investigational new drug (IND) applications with the FDA, he says.

“The company will need more capital to reach IND,” Nuwaysir says. “We expect additional investment in the near future.”