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Ben Shaberman

As the Foundation Fighting Blindness’ Director, Science Communications, Ben writes science and research articles for the Foundation’s website, newsletters and Eye on the Cure blog. Before joining the Foundation in 2003, he worked as a staff writer for health, long-term care and hospice care organizations. Ben’s freelance essays and commentaries have been published by a variety of national newspapers and magazines.

The following articles were authored by Ben Shaberman

Twelve People Receive XLRS Gene Therapy in AGTC’s Clinical Trial

Applied Genetics Technology Corporation (AGTC) reported that its gene therapy for X-linked retinoschisis (XLRS) has performed encouragingly in a Phase I/II, safety-oriented clinical trial taking place at seven sites in the U.S.

XLRS is an inherited disease that leads to significant vision loss due to splitting of the layers of the retina. The condition affects about 35,000 males in the U.S. and Europe. XLRS is caused by mutations in the gene retinoschisin. AGTC’s gene therapy uses a human-engineered virus — and adeno-associated virus or AAV — to deliver normal copies of retinoschisin to the patient’s retina.
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SparingVision Formed to Advance Sight-Saving Protein for RP

L to R: Florence Allouche Ghrenassia, PharmD, President, SparingVision; Frédérique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation; José-Alain Sahel, MD, Co-Founder, SparingVision and Fondation Voir & Entendre; David Brint, and Chairman, Foundation Fighting Blindness; and Laure Reinhardt, Deputy CEO, Bpifrance

L to R: Florence Allouche Ghrenassia, PharmD, President, SparingVision; Frédérique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation; José-Alain Sahel, MD, Co-Founder, SparingVision and Fondation Voir & Entendre; David Brint, Chairman, Foundation Fighting Blindness; and Laure Reinhardt, Deputy CEO, Bpifrance

The development of a vision-saving treatment for people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is getting a major boost thanks to the formation of the French biotech SparingVision to move it into a clinical trial and out to the international marketplace.

A spin-off of the Institut de la Vision, SparingVision was established to clinically develop and commercialize a protein known as rod-derived cone-viability factor (RdCVF). The emerging therapy performed well in several previous lab studies funded by the Foundation Fighting Blindness. SparingVision’s goal is to launch a clinical trial for the protein in 2019.
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Foundation Investing in Drug to Slow Many Forms of RP

Sometimes, fighting blindness means helping people save the vision they have, or at least slowing disease progression enough so they can maintain useful vision for all of their lives.

That’s the idea behind a promising, emerging drug for retinitis pigmentosa (RP) known as N-acetylcysteine-amide (NACA). The Foundation Fighting Blindness Clinical Research Institute (FFB-CRI) has announced an investment of up to $7.5 million to advance the potential therapy into and through a Phase II clinical trial. In several animal models, including previous FFB-funded lab studies of rodent models at Johns Hopkins University, NACA slowed retinal degeneration.

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To Treat an Inherited Retinal Disease, It’s Good to Know Exactly What’s Wrong with the Gene

Jason Comander, M.D., Ph.D.In simple terms, genes are like recipes for making proteins. All the cells in our bodies “read” genetic information so they can make the critical proteins necessary to stay healthy and function properly. If there is a mistake in a gene — that is, a misspelling — a protein might not be made correctly and cells in the retina might degenerate and cause vision loss.

These misspellings are called mutations, and just like a mistake in a recipe, some mutations are more devastating than others. For example, when baking a cake, let’s say there is an error in the recipe. It incorrectly calls for a quarter cup of sugar, when the right amount is a half of a cup. The cake may not taste great, but it is still edible. But let’s say the instruction for adding flour is omitted entirely. Then the cake will be a complete failure and go uneaten.

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Building a Wiring Diagram for the Retina to Help Researchers Save and Restore Vision

Connectome image

An image of an electrically connected patch of one single class of retinal neurons that signal brightness for the visual system. Each single cell is shaped like a spider or octopus and connected to its neighbors. This is the first visualization of such a population of cells that has been untangled from the complete connectome.

In simple terms, the retina is a thin, delicate layer of tissue lining the back of the eye that captures light like film or digital sensors in a camera. But the retina is actually an incredibly complex network of hundreds of millions cells that process light, converting it into electronic signals, which are sent to the brain and used to create the images we see. And, understanding the pathways of this gargantuan network — and how they are rewired with aging and disease — is helpful in trying to save and restore vision.

“If you are going to fix cells in the retina, you have to know how they communicate,” said Robert E. Marc, Ph.D., University of Utah, in the opening keynote lecture at the RD2016 meeting in Kyoto, Japan. Held September 19-24, RD2016 is the largest research conference dedicated exclusively to retinal degenerations, and funded in part by the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
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Nobel-Prize-Winning Stem-Cell Researcher Delivers Keynote at FFB-Funded Conference in Kyoto

Shinya Yamanaka, M.D., Ph.D.It was only 10 years ago that Shinya Yamanaka, M.D., Ph.D., discovered how to convert a person’s skin cells into stem cells by tweaking just four genes. The historical breakthrough landed Dr. Yamanaka the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology-Medicine, because it meant that patients could be their own stem-cell donors. Known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), they are now being used to develop powerful therapies and drug-screening tools including those for the retina.

To the delight of nearly 300 retinal researchers from around the world attending the FFB-funded RD2016 meeting, September 19-24 in Kyoto, Japan, Dr. Yamanka discussed his early clinical trial for iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells for a 78-year-old woman with advanced wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The study met its main goal – safety – and he and his collaborator, Masayo Takahashi, M.D., Ph.D., are planning to treat additional patients in the near future.

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Embrace Your Exceptions: A Mantra for Understanding Retinal-Disease Inheritance

Stephen Daiger, Ph.D. and colleague Lori Sullivan, Ph.D.Inherited retinal diseases are difficult to understand merely because they’re so rare and diverse. More than 250 genes, when mutated, can cause them, yet collectively, they affect only 200,000 people in the United States.

Their widely varying impact on vision adds to the challenge. For example, the youngest sibling in a family may be nearly blind from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), while his or her older brother or sister with the same RP gene mutation can have near normal vision.

But as FFB-funded retinal geneticist Stephen Daiger, Ph.D., discussed at the RD2016 meeting in Kyoto, Japan, the complex and elusive nature of these conditions can also extend to the way they are passed down in families, making diagnosis and prognosis quite challenging. Dr. Daiger was one of nearly 300 retinal researchers who gathered September 19-24, 2016, for the world’s largest conference focused exclusively on retinal degenerative diseases. The conference was supported in-part by FFB.
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Researchers Identify Canine Model of LCA (NPHP5) — Pursue Gene Therapy

Photo of William Beltran, Artur Cideciyan, Gustavo Aguirre and Samuel Jacobson. Photo by John Donges/Penn Vet

William Beltran, Artur Cideciyan, Gustavo Aguirre and Samuel Jacobson. Photo by John Donges/Penn Vet

When scientists embark on developing a treatment for an inherited retinal disease, one of their first tasks is to identify or create a model of the condition. Disease models can be cells in a Petri dish, a genetically engineered mouse or rat, or larger animal such as a pig. Each type of model has its pros and cons, including cost and similarity of disease characteristics to those in humans.

The investigators then use the model to study how vision is lost — that is, they figure out which types of retinal cells degenerate, what is causing the degeneration, and how quickly the cells stop working. After they gain an understanding of the disease, researchers evaluate potential therapeutic approaches using the model as a testing platform.

The goal: Move a therapy into a human study.
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Optogenetic Therapy Takes First Step Forward in Clinical Trial

Retrosense logoRetroSense Therapeutics has reported that three participants have received injections of its potential optogenetic therapy, known as RST-01, in a Phase I/II clinical trial. The patients were given the lowest dose of RST-01, and no adverse ocular events were observed. Furthermore, the treatment showed some biological activity, though RetroSense did not provide details about what that activity was or what it meant.

More information on safety and efficacy will likely be reported about the RetroSense trial after more trial participants have been observed over a longer period of time, and after discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Continue Reading…

Pixium Vision Reports Progress in Development of Two Advanced Bionic Retina Systems

Man wearing Pixium Bionic Retina GlassesWhile several companies and laboratories around the world are at various stages of bionic-retina development, Pixium Vision  located in France, is progressing impressively down two paths for these high-tech, vision-restoring systems. Both approaches show strong, near-term potential for providing meaningful vision to people who are otherwise blind from retinal diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Pixium recently announced that its IRIS®II bionic vision system received a CE Mark, the regulatory approval necessary for marketing medical devices and other products in Europe. The IRIS II is further down the company’s clinical development pipeline than its more technologically advanced PRIMA system, which was originally conceptualized by researchers at Stanford University, and is expected to enter a clinical trial later this year for AMD.

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