WSU research leads to algae treatment for blindness

[USA] In a coup for Wayne State University’s reputation as a research center, a small eye-care company that uses green algae genes to treat a type of human blindness has sold for $60 million.

The company, RetroSense Therapeutics, which is now based at the Ann Arbor SPARK business accelerator, was acquired this month by Allergan, a $4 billion-a-year maker of skin and eye care products.

The company’s treatment uses a virus to deliver a photoreceptor gene from the algae into a human patient’s eye. The research, which aims to cure an inherited disease that causes people to slowly go blind, has shown promise. The Federal Drug Administration gave permission for a clinical trial.

Sean Ainsworth, founder and CEO of RetroSense, said the Wayne State research shows that world-class results can come out of the Detroit university, as well as from research giants like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Zhuo-Hua Pan of Wayne State University's Medical School helped develop a novel treatment for a type of vision loss. (Photo: Wayne State University)
Dr. Zhuo-Hua Pan of Wayne State University’s Medical School helped develop a novel treatment for a type of vision loss.
(Photo: Wayne State University)

“I think it really speaks volumes to some of the stuff that’s going on at Wayne State,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of different universities and tech transfer offices and it’s really impressive things coming out of Wayne State University. This optogenetics work is some of the best I’ve seen out of anywhere.”

RetroSense was founded in 2009 based on research by Zhuo-Hua Pan, professor of ophthalmology and anatomy/cell biology and scientific director of the Ligon Research Center of Vision/Kresge Eye Institute at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine. Richard Masland, a researcher at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, also contributed.

Using Pan’s discoveries, RetroSense is developing a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited condition in which light receptor cells in the retina die, leading to gradual blindness or partial vision loss. The problem affects about 100,000 people in the U.S., and there have been no effective treatments.

In a field known as optogenetics, RetroSense had developed a treatment called RST-001 that is meant to help restore vision in patients with the disease. With Federal Drug Administration approval, the company began the first human clinical tests of RST-001 earlier this year.

Dr. Pan’s novel research involved using a virus that delivers a photoreceptor gene from green algae. Pan discovered that the gene could ultimately lead to the brain perceiving light again.

Wayne State benefits from a variety of ways from this sort of success. First, it licensed Pan’s technology to RetroSense and so it will gain some financial return from that in the long run. But more broadly, success breeds success, and a school with a reputation for greatness in a field as hot as optogenetics will attract more students, professors and investors looking for the next breakthrough.

And that, over time, benefits the university and the broader Detroit community.

“I think it’s a great example of how Wayne State can work with small companies and end up with an outcome on clinical outcomes and patient care. This is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Joan Dunbar, head of technology commercialization for Wayne State.

Dunbar said there’s a lot more research going on at Wayne State that might lead to similar success stories.

“We’re trying to develop a really nice pipeline,” she said. “This was the first one that made the big hit out the door but we hope to have a lot more coming down the line as well.”


View original article at: WSU research leads to algae treatment for blindness

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