The Promise for Vision Restoration
Three years ago, Sean Ainsworth was approached by the technology commercialization office at Wayne State University, to review and give feedback on selected technologies that were being developed at Wayne State. Ainsworth’s background was in the life sciences and his corporate development pharmaceutical experience offered him the opportunity to see a number of exciting biotechnologies over the years. As Ainsworth was assessing the technologies he became particularly interested in the science being developed by Wayne State researcher Dr. Zhuo-Hua Pan in the field of vision restoration.
“The technology employs a gene therapy approach to deliver a new photosensitivity gene to retinal cells, restoring the ability of the eyes to sense light,” says Ainsworth. “The gene is from blue-green algae that has photosensitive proteins that detect where the sun is shining and moves in that direction in order to better convert the light into energy.” Ainsworth closely followed the progress of the work and in 2009 secured worldwide rights to the intellectual property, licensed the technology and founded RetroSense Therapeutics in Ann Arbor.
RetroSense Therapeutics is pioneering an innovative development to restore vision in people with degenerative conditions where the loss of photoreceptors has led to blindness. Photoreceptors (rods and cones) are light sensitive cells in the eye that convert light signals to nerve impulses which are sent to the brain where they are interpreted and create our vision. “As photoreceptors die in retinal conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa and advanced dry age-related macular degeneration, visual acuity and the ability to see in a dimly lit room is diminished,” explains Ainsworth. “This progressive loss of photoreceptors leads to blindness and our goal is to restore functional vision to people with these conditions.” RetroSense’s technology is designed to ‘install’ new photosensors irrespective of which gene defect is responsible for vision loss. This approach promises application across a broad spectrum of patients. “Most drugs in development for these conditions are designed to slow the progression of the disease. RetroSense on the other hand, is attempting to restore vision after the patient has gone blind – it’s a completely novel approach,” states Ainsworth.
From the outset, Ainsworth found significant interest from leaders in the ophthamology and biotechnology communities and was able to build an impressive management team and advisory group in a short time. “We have been able to build a team that has commercial and scientific experience across all areas of drug development as well as start-up success,” relates Ainsworth.
RetroSense is currently at the pre-clinical stage of development and working toward human clinical trials. “We will be running a battery of safety and toxicity tests that are a prerequisite for Federal Drug Administration approval for human trials,” says Ainsworth. “We expect to begin clinical trials within two years and shortly thereafter demonstrate early proof of concept showing positive results in humans.” RetroSense anticipates seeing signs of efficacy in a short time frame, perhaps as little as a few months. As drug development goes, this is a very short timeline.
In the meantime, the RetroSense team has built and refined a development plan that has successfully resulted in securing funding from Michigan’s Pre-Seed Capital Fund, receiving federal grant funding and revenue from private angel investors. The company is now generating interest in the venture capital community.
RetroSense has been quick to take advantage of a number of Michigan’s business service providers. Ann Arbor SPARK has provided outstanding consulting support, the company has benefited from Detroit’s Tech Town training and mentoring programs and taken full advantage of the variety of services offered by the Michigan Small Business Technology Development Center. “SBTDC consultants have helped us polish our investor pitch, refine our business plan and make connections for us. They really know the entrepreneurial community and what it takes to get investors’ attention,” acknowledges Ainsworth. “The SBTDC network is indispensible to companies like mine. It’s a terrific sounding board and it’s great to be able to pick up the phone and get good, solid advice when I need it.”
The company’s objective is to partner with a large pharmaceutical company during the course of the clinical trials. Then it will be on to commercialization of the therapy. It is clearly a company with promise.
Learn more about RetroSense Therapeutics.
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