Retinal Symposium Focuses on Research and Financial Partnerships for Advancing Therapies

April 18, 2013

Hosted by the Foundation Fighting Blindness Clinical Research Institute, the Symposium on Retinal Innovation held in Boston on April 10 brought together 150 retinal scientists, venture capitalists, pharmaceutical industry leaders and patients to discuss emerging opportunities for the commercial development of sight-saving therapies for more than 10 million Americans affected by retinal diseases. Their common goal: establish partnerships to move retinal treatments through clinical trials and into the marketplace.

“We’ve achieved enormous success in retinal research and are on the verge of remarkable breakthroughs, but we are facing funding challenges,” said Alan Spiro, a national trustee of the Foundation and Symposium co-chair affected by retinitis pigmentosa. “This unique event was organized to help us form the collaborations and identify the funding opportunities that we’ll get us to our goal.”

Several venture capital and industry representatives attended the Symposium, because of their interest in the cutting-edge research of Foundation-funded scientists including: Dr. David Gamm, a leading innovator in stem cell therapies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Luk Vandenberghe, co-founder of the gene therapy development company GenSight Biologics, and Dr. Craig Beeson, who recently co-founded MitoChem Therapeutics, a company developing cross-cutting therapies that boost the energy supply of retinal cells affected by disease.

“The Foundation’s job is to make big pharma and venture capital firms aware of the great science we make possible,” said Dr. Patricia Zilliox, a Symposium presenter and chief drug development officer from the Foundation’s Clinical Research Institute. “We not only support the best retinal researchers in the world, but we have strong connections in the patient and physician communities. Those relationships are huge to the industry.”

After her presentation, Dr. Zilliox met with representatives from Genetech, Bayer and Norvatis, all of whom expressed interest in learning more about the Foundation’s portfolio and potentially forming strategic relationships.

Dr. David Guyer, a featured presenter and Symposium co-chair, told the compelling story of how he co-founded the company Eyetech in 2000 to move Macugen® — the first wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) therapy that blocked vision-robbing blood vessel growth — into the market. However, he and the company had strong initial resistance from the pharmaceutical industry.

“A pharmaceutical marketing manager told me that they had done extensive research into wet AMD and found that if you lose one eye you still have the other eye so they didn’t think there was a market,” recalled Dr. Guyer. “Stunned and amazed by this, we started Eyetech to get the drug to the patients. We had outstanding science and created a team-oriented culture that understood the need and the urgency.”

Ultimately, Eyetech attracted venture capital funding, partnered with Pfizer, and received marketing approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for Macugen in 2004. Eyetech was eventually sold for nearly one billion dollars. The treatment opened the door to even more effective wet AMD therapies including Lucentis® and Eylea®. Today, Dr. Guyer is partner at the venture capital firm S.V. Life Sciences and Symposium, which has investments in 14 ophthalmology companies.

Dr. William Link, managing director at Versant Ventures and national trustee of the Foundation, spoke about the opportunities for growth in ophthalmology markets because “ophthalmologists today are doing things differently from what they were trained to do — they are open to new ideas.”

Versant currently funds 19 ophthalmology companies including three targeting inherited retinal diseases: GenSight Biologics, Second Sight, maker of the FDA-approved Argus II retinal prosthesis, and Neurotech, which has clinical trials underway for its encapsulated cell technology for delivering vision-saving proteins to the retina. Foundation funding has played an important role in the advancement of all three companies and their treatments.

In the 30-plus years since he has been in the business, Dr. Link has seen venture capital support for ophthalmology grow from one company to 50. He credits success of these ventures to two things: teamwork and adaptability.

“Our original ideas are almost flawed. We have to stay nimble and recover,” he said. “And, it’s all about the team. Building companies is a team sport.”