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Foundation Fighting Blindness invests $8.25 million in gene therapy research

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Foundation Fighting Blindness, a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing sight-saving research, has reported an $8.25 million investment in six new gene therapy research projects that are targeted to have treatments ready for clinical trials within three years. The grants focus on treating a broad range of retinal degenerative diseases and will be allocated through the Foundation’s Translational Research Acceleration Program, which funds research efforts with strong, near-term clinical potential.

As part of the new $8.25 million investment, one innovative project involves the use of gene therapy to resurrect and reactivate cone cells that are compromised by disease. In many inherited retinal conditions, including retinitis pigmentosa, cones stop working before they completely degenerate. The Institut de la Vision in Paris and the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel, Switzerland, are developing a gene therapy that revives degenerating cones, enabling them to regain their ability to respond to light and provide vision. The treatment also improves the health of cones and extends their lifespan significantly. This therapeutic approach holds the potential to benefit people affected by a range of conditions, because it works independently of the underlying disease-causing genetic defect. Resurrecting cones can improve an affected individual’s well being, because these cells provide central, daytime and detailed vision that is critical for independent living.
The Foundation is also funding the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center, which in collaboration with Copernicus Therapeutics, is developing a nanoparticle gene therapy delivery system. Nanoparticles are tiny manmade particles, 1/12,000th the diameter of a human hair, which can readily penetrate retinal cells, making them effective for delivery of therapeutic genes. They may provide advantages in certain cases over viral gene delivery technologies currently used in retinal disease therapies. Perhaps most beneficial is their ability to deliver large genes — genes that exceed the capacity of viral delivery systems — for treating some diseases.
Through a Foundation grant to AGTC, a clinical stage biotechnology company, funds will support researchers at Oregon Health & Science University’s Casey Eye Institute and the University of Florida in their pre-clinical work to evaluate a gene therapy treatment for X-linked retinoschisis, a blinding disease that affects over 35,000 patients in the United States and Europe.
Portions of the Foundation’s $8.25 million investment will also go toward research happening at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the University of Florida for projects investigating gene therapy for two different LCA-causing genes. The final grant supports work at the University of Pennsylvania for choroideremia gene therapy led by Dr. Jean Bennett, who is also one of the lead investigators on the landmark LCA gene therapy clinical trial that has restored vision in more than 40 patients.

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