A 29-year-old British man is the first person to be treated in a gene therapy clinical trial for X-linked retinitis pigmentosa (XLRP). Robert MacLaren, MD, the lead investigator for the trial taking place at the Oxford Eye Hospital in the United Kingdom, says the patient is doing well and has gone home. The trial is being run by Nightstar, a biopharmaceutical company in the U.K. developing therapies for inherited retinal diseases. As many as 24 patients will be enrolled in the 12-month trial.
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.
No, people with inherited retinal diseases don’t have to adopt new names or personas, or go into witness protection programs, to save their vision. But by changing the identity of cells in the retina — namely rods — researchers may someday be able to slow or halt vision loss for those with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and other related conditions.
While the innovative therapeutic approach is not ready to be tested in humans, a research team led by Tom Reh, PhD, University of Washington, and Sheng Ding, PhD, University of California, San Francisco, accomplished the feat in mice with RP. The investigators treated rods in the mice with a compound known as photoregulin1 (PR1) that blocked a gene involved in rod development called Nr2e3. That, in turn, reduced the expression (activity) of other rod-associated genes, making the rods less rod-like and more like cones. Doing so stopped retinal degeneration, preserving both rods and cones. Rods and cones are important, because they’re the cells that make vision possible. Results of the PR1 study were published online in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.
Considering all that Richard Weleber, M.D., has accomplished over four decades —
including leadership and oversight of clinical trials for emerging retinal-disease therapies and innovations in retina imaging and functional evaluation at the world-renowned Casey Eye Institute, Oregon Health & Science University — it comes as no surprise that he’s been given FFB’s Llura Liggett Gund Award for career achievement. Dr. Weleber became the 10th recipient of the Foundation’s highest honor, named after FFB co-founder Lulie Gund, during the opening lunch of the VISIONS 2016 conference.
The effort to restore vision lost to retinal diseases using stem cells can sound so tantalizing simple. The researcher gets some stem cells, turns them into retinal cells, puts them in the patient’s retina to replace lost cells and—voila!—the patient can see again.
It’s apropos that Rare Disease Day 2016 will be held on the rarest day on the calendar—Leap Day, February 29.
However, collectively, rare diseases are not uncommon. About 30 million Americans, nearly 10 percent of our population, are affected by one of 7,000 rare diseases. They’re an important public health issue, making it incumbent upon us to work hard to eradicate them.