IRD Milestones: Reasons to Be Excited

 In Blog

1971 – Just those numbers in white on a black page appeared on the big screen.

That’s how Brian Mansfield, PhD., began his presentation to families and patients living with Leber congenital amaurosis at Sofia Sees Hope’s LCA Family Conference on Saturday, Oct. 6, in Groton, CT.

The year on that otherwise empty page marked the founding of Foundation Fighting Blindness – a time when patients losing vision often heard, “Go home. Learn Braille. You are going to go blind.”

Mansfield’s audience at the conference was made up of people diagnosed with a variety of rare inherited retinal diseases, including LCA, their caregivers and relatives, and representatives of various bio-tech and pharmaceutical companies working in the IRD arena. It was Sofia Sees Hope’s first such conference.

Dr. Brian Mansfield

Mansfield is the foundation’s senior vice president of research. He brought his audience up to date with information about clinical trials for inherited retinal diseases (IRDs), the rich preclinical therapeutic pipeline, how the Foundation uses money to move treatments forward and what people can do to drive change for IRD treatments and therapies.

His presentation culminated in a projected slide filled with logos of bio-technology and pharmaceutical firms, many of which are in contact with the Foundation, and represent the ever-expanding research and development field to help people with visual impairment.

$725 million in funding

In its 47 years, Foundation Fighting Blindness has raised more than $725 million toward research, development and public health education. It partners with several dozen U.S. non-profit organizations, including Sofia Sees Hope.

Mansfield traced the rapid trajectory of identifying genes causing retinal disease, from the founding of the National Eye Institute in 1968 through the Foundation’s funding of the Berman-Gund Laboratory for the Study of Retina Degenerations in 1971. It included the 1989-90 work identifying the rhodopsin gene as the genetic cause of Retina Pigmentosa (RP), and conducting the first retinal disease gene therapy trials in 2007. And of course culminated in last December’s federal approval LUXTURNA™, a gene therapy that helps restore vision in people with LCA2 (RPE65).

For people affected by LCA, more than 80 percent can now get a clear genetic diagnosis. For IRDs, more than 260 retinal disease genes have been identified, and the overall success in providing a clear genetic diagnosis is 65 percent.

Mansfield said that 23 gene-based clinical trials targeting 13 different genes are currently underway, including the LCA4 (AIPL1) gene trial by MeiraGTx.

A promising pipeline

He said the gene therapy preclinical pipeline is promising, with 100 genes under investigation. Researchers also are conducting preclinical studies of optogenetic gene therapies, in which light is used to control genetically modified retinal cells.

ProQR is planning a pivotal Phase 2/3 gene patch clinical trial for the LCA10 (CEP290) gene that involves injecting a short DNA molecule to cover up the faulty instruction the gene otherwise gives to act incorrectly. Also, Mansfield said, Editas Medicine is close to gene editing clinical trials, called “cut and paste” because an enzyme seeks out and repairs the defective gene. Another editing therapy in the pipeline, called base editing, essentially backspaces over the mutation and types the correction over it.

Also underway are more than 20 retinal cell therapy trials in which lost cells are put back to replace missing cells or used as biofactories to produce factors that help stabilize the retinal cells.

To help propel research and trials, the Foundation funds Career Development Awards to attract and retain clinician researchers dedicated to retinal disease research. The Foundation also provides awards to the brightest minds in the field, individually or as a team, to drive research.

It also gave 16 years of preclinical research support amounting to $10 million toward Spark Therapeutics’ commercial gene therapy, LUXTURNA, the first directly administered gene therapy approved in the United States that targets a disease caused by mutations in a specific gene – LCA RPE65.

Mansfield talked about how Applied Genetics Technology Corp. (AGTC) leveraged an early Foundation investment to garner $265 million to develop genetic therapies, some of which are in clinical trials.

The Foundation also supports 20 centers – the International Clinical Consortium – that have standardized assessment protocols for clinical trials.

Patient involvement is key

To continue to attract industry interest, Mansfield detailed the Foundation’s My Retina Tracker registry, with its tagline “Track your vision. Drive the research.” It’s a free, secure, online patient registry that notifies registrants of clinical trials and gives researchers access to their disease data – but not their personal information – to advance studies on any number of research and therapy development efforts associated with IRDs.

The power of My Retina Tracker is optimized by registrants getting a genetic diagnosis. Sofia Sees Hope donated $65,000 to help people receive genetic testing and counseling.

Mansfield emphasized to his audience the vital importance of their knowledge, what they carry with them, and that patient input is critical to drug development.