Explosive Growth Seen in Field of Rare Inherited Retinal Disease Research

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Advances in genetic sequencing boosted research into rare inherited retinal diseases (IRDs), making a tremendous impact on the number of clinical trials underway for genetic treatments.

“There are 37 trials in IRDs; 10 years ago, you could count them on your fingers,” said Foundation Fighting Blindness Chief Executive Officer Benjamin Yerxa, Ph.D

Also, genetic testing zoomed from zero-possibility to an individual being able to receive a full genetic sequence within a few weeks for a couple of thousand dollars.

Dr. Ben Yerxa at the LCA Family Conference in July.

Dr. Yerxa opened the Sofia Sees Hope second LCA Family Conference on July 27 in Philadelphia before an audience of more than 80 people from 15 states and Mexico. They represented patients and families living with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), other rare diseases (retinal and otherwise), and advocates, doctors, researchers and biotech leaders. 

He delivered updates on the Foundation’s work in his presentation, “Accelerating Translation of New Treatments for IRDs – A Foundation’s Perspective.” The Foundation, the world’s largest private funding source for research into treatments and cures for IRDs, has raised more than $750 million toward its mission since its founding in 1971. Sofia Sees Hope partners with the Foundation by helping provide families with free access to genetic testing, and funding research.

Advances in genetic sequencing

Dr. Yerxa credited the Human Genome Project (HGP) – costing an inflation-adjusted $5 billion – with netting continued advances in genetic sequencing and making great gains in the IRD field.

Researchers have identified the mutated genes in 65 percent of people with retinal disease who get genetically tested, and in 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved LUXTURNA™, the first approved gene therapy for the eye or an inherited condition. LUXTURNA is for people with mutations in the RPE65 gene, one of the more than 25 genes that, when mutated, can lead to LCA.

Dr. Yerxa said that approximately 200,000 people in the United States have an IRD, with each condition meeting the definition of an orphan disease

He also delineated the LCA trials in progress in an “LCA by the Numbers” presentation. He discussed an emerging treatment for CEP290 (LCA10) by ProQR, which is in a Phase 2/3 clinical trial, and research also on CEP290 by Editas Medicine and Allergan, who are recruiting patients in a landmark clinical trial to test a gene-editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9.

“We all know it takes a village,” Dr. Yerxa said. “There are tons of people involved in these programs.”

Supporting retinal research

He also detailed the Foundation’s new “Innovation in Venture Philanthropy: RD Fund,” a first-of-a-kind retinal degeneration fund focused on IRDs. It is an internal venture philanthropy investment account overseen by an independent board of directors. Donor dollars go to biotechnology companies as investments, with financial returns reinvested to support the Foundation’s mission. 

Among its contributions to research, the Foundation gave $10 million toward the development of LUXTURNA and $6 million to the Natural History of the Progression of Atrophy Secondary to Stargardt Disease or ProgStar studies that produced new knowledge and potential outcome measures. 

Dr. Yerxa also reported impressive gains in membership to My Retina Tracker® (MRT), the free and secure online international patient registry managed by the Foundation.

“I call it the LUXTURNA effect. Thanks to LUXTURNA, registration went up like a hockey stick.”

With membership at more than 23,000 and growing, the registry’s goal is to drive research toward prevention, treatments and cures for people living with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), Stargardt disease, Usher syndrome and the whole spectrum of inherited retinal degenerative diseases, including LCA.

In a slide titled “Our Space is Very Active” showing a collage of more than 50 logos of biotech companies involved with vision research, Dr. Yerxa said, “More and more people are jumping into this space. 

“This is good news. Ocular is hot.”