Green algae may brighten outlook for those with macular degeneration

NAPLES, Fla. – In case you didn’t know, there’s a connection between green algae and the potential to restore vision in people with macular degeneration.

Didn’t know? Learn more at a seminar Saturday with a panel of eye specialists and scientists at a symposium to inform patients about progress in research for treating both the wet and dry forms of macular degeneration.

The symposium is sponsored by the Southwest Florida-based Retina Health Center and the Foundation for Fighting Blindness in Columbia, Maryland.

Dr. Stephen Bramer, chief development officer for a biotechnology company in Ann Arbor, Michigan is the keynote speaker. He will provide an overview of how his company, RetroSense Therapeutics, intends to launch a human clinical trial later this year that involves a gene found in green algae.

The gene is called Channelrhodopsin-2 and it has capabilities to absorb or accept light similar to photoreceptors cells in the eyes that are necessary for vision but have died in people with retinal degenerative diseases. The therapy involves injecting the gene in the eye area.

“We are taking neuron cells and turning them into photoreceptor-like cells to accept light,” Bramer said.

The hope is to restore some vision in blind patients with the dry form of an improved macular degeneration diet.

“They can read (large) letters, they can navigate around a room,” Bramer said.

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 55 and affects more than 10 million Americans, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.

It is caused by the central portion of the retina, the macula, deteriorating. The macula is responsible for central vision and loss of central vision leads to inability to read, drive, see fine objects and has a huge bearing on quality of life.

Gene therapy for advanced retinal diseases, like macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, is known as optogenetics and is an emerging field that the foundation for fighting blindness says holds great hope for restoring some vision in blind individuals.

Bramer said the reason he and others at RetroSense believe their gene therapy can work is because another approach, already on the market called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, involves an implanted chip and external components that work similarly.

The Argus device is for patients with retinitis pigmentosa, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approved the device in 2013.

Bramer said the gene therapy and connection to green algae came about several years ago by several Japanese scientists who have a love for fishing and were curious as to why green algae moves to the surface of pond water, he said.

The research lead to the isolation of the Channelrhodopsin-2 gene in the algae, and that gene also naturally exists in the eye, Bramer said.

Dr. Alexander Eaton, founder and medical director of Retina Health, will speak at the symposium about preventive measures against vision loss from macular degeneration.

In regard to gene therapy, it is exciting and evolving rapidly, Eaton said.

“The promise is incredible,” Eaton said, adding that it is not just for addressing diseases of the eyes. “This is really, really interesting and it’s going to permeate all medicine.”

Bramer said his company has the worldwide licensing rights to the intellectual property of one of the scientists who helped develop the algae-based gene therapy, Zhuo-Hua Pan, who is a biology professor at Wayne State University in the Detroit area.

“Our (chief executive officer), Sean Ainsworth, was working with Dr. Pan at Wayne State,” Bramer said.

The plan is to start a clinical trial later this year with a small number of humans, initially with groups of three people, and the chief investigator is based in Texas, he said. Bramer said it was premature to release the identity of the lead investigator.

The plan is to see if there are signs of some vision restoration at eight to 12 weeks, and the outcomes may require adjusting the dosage of the gene therapy, Bramer said.

“We will start with people who are totally blind,” he said. “That is our goal.”

Bramer was formerly with the Foundation for Fighting Blindness and has spoken previously at the annual symposium in Southwest Florida, with an audience of individuals with macular degeneration or other eye diseases that causes blindness.

“It’s a large audience and you get some really interesting questions,” Bramer said.

 

View original article at: Green algae may brighten outlook for those with macular degeneration

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