Jul 21, 2014
09:05 AMHealth & Wellness
CT-Based LambdaVision Working To Restore Sight to Those Who Have Lost It
Nicole Wagner knows the hardships caused by age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa, two conditions that can lead to severe vision loss and blindness.
“With retinitis pigmentosa, the patients are usually blind around the age of 40, but they can go blind much sooner than that. It is devastating, there’s a huge loss of independence,” Wagner says. “Age-related macular degeneration is usually cited as being one of the leading causes of irreversible vision loss in people over the age of 50. So for those patients, you're finally starting to retire, you finally get that chance to spend time with grandkids, and then you start to lose your vision.”
That’s part of the reason the scientist, who received her PhD in molecular and cell biology from UConn, is helping to develop a cure. “It's great to see your research turn into something that has the potential to actually help people,” she says.
Wagner is the president, CEO and one of the founders of LambdaVision, a small Connecticut company with big plans. Wagner, her partners, and the more than one million afflicted with age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, hope the company is in the process of developing an effective method for restoring sight to millions with a potentially revolutionary protein-based artificial retina that will be surgically implanted in patients with age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa.
The Farmington-based company, which works closely with UConn, has received more than $150,000 in funding from Connecticut Innovations, a state-formed organization dedicated to helping promising technology companies get off the ground, and $75,000 in matching funds from UConn Ventures, an organization which supports startups at UConn.
In addition, the company recently completed a successful series of proof-of-concept studies at the Boston VA Center for Innovative Visual Rehabilitation. The retinal implant is the brainchild of Robert Birge, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UConn. Birge developed the concept after he saw the light, or at least studied a protein that did.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Age-related macular degeneration is a common eye condition that usually occurs in patients over the age of 50. Symptoms include a blurry spot near the center of vision that gradually expands and results in objects appearing less bright. Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision loss and often blindness. Some people exhibit symptoms all their life; for others, the symptoms don’t appear until later. Though very different conditions, age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa have some similarities.
“What happens in a person who has age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa is their eyes become insensitive to light because their photoreceptor cells are degenerating,” explains Wagner. “It is these cells that are responsible for converting light into an electrical signal that allows for a visual signal. Rods [night/dark vision] and cones [light/bright vision] make up your photoreceptor cells.”
She adds that with either eye condition as your photoreceptor cells stop working properly, “your eyes can no longer effectively capture that light energy and convert it into some type of a meaningful signal.”
That’s where Birge’s concept and the idea that launched LambdaVision comes in. Birge is an expert when it comes to protein. He has published more than 250 research papers and holds five U.S. and international patents on the use of proteins for a variety of purposes, including holographic associative memories and hybrid protein-semiconductor devices. In 1997, Time Digital listed him among the fifty “Cyber Elite” for his work on protein-based devices. He also won the Connecticut Innovations 2001 Annual Technology Award, the 2002 3M Award of Canada for Physical Chemistry and the 2009 Connecticut Medal of Science.
Birge came up with the concept of using a light-activated protein called bacteriorhodopsin to stimulate the retina of patients suffering from impaired vision or loss of sight due to retinal degenerative diseases. Wagner worked with Birge on some of the early studies of the concept while she was a doctoral student.
“Our goal is to use a light-activated protein, bacteriorhodopsin, to replace the function of the photoreceptor cells,” Wagner says.
The retinal implant the company founders hope to develop will be small, inexpensive to manufacture and implantable in patients via surgery that is not overly invasive.
The company was founded by Birge and his students in 2009. When Birge began developing the concept he notified UConn officials. Rita Zangari, director of innovation programs at the university, says professors are required to notify the school if they have a potentially patentable device. Between 70 and 100 concepts are submitted by faculty members each year and go through a vetting process to assess an invention’s patent viability and overall marketability. Only about a third of the concepts submitted actually go on to receive patents. What impressed Zangari about the LambdaVision retinal implant was the way it could fill an important market niche.
“What the university saw was that there was an unmet need that could be fulfilled by this particular product,” she says. UConn owns the patent to the retinal-implant technology and is licensing that patent to LambdaVision. The startup company also uses Birge’s UConn lab as its laboratory.
After the company formed, it received significant funding from the state and university. More recently, it received a $35,000 Manufacturing Technical Assistance Grant from the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology. Robert Torrani, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Center at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, says they were able to help LambdaVision by manufacturing a precision tool needed to prove the viability of the LambdaVision product.
“Anything we can do with people’s sight restitution or site preservation is an important part of the quality of life,” he says. He adds that small companies like LambdaVision are carrying on Connecticut’s long tradition of technical innovation, development and manufacturing.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
Despite the company’s successes, LambdaVision still has a long way to go. So far the proof-of-concept studies have been successful on the retinas of dead animals. The next step is for the company to conduct tests on living animals, which Wagner is optimistic can take place as soon as this fall. Following that, the hope would be to submit a proposal with the Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials. However, even if everything goes smoothly, the process is not a quick one—at best, it will take 7 to 10 years before LambdaVision’s retinal implant could become widely available.
The company also does not have a monopoly on the retinal-implant market. Several other companies are working on retinal implants that help generate light through electrodes rather than protein. Yet Wagner and Birge maintain the technology they are attempting to develop has distinct advantages.
“Our implant is flexible, which makes it easier to implant, has higher resolution, 10-20 times better, and is cheaper—it is half the cost of the complex electrical system,” he says. “It also does not require any external equipment to operate. Once implanted, the patient will see indoors in well-lit rooms and outdoors during the day.” However, there are limitations to this technology, as well as other types in development. “All of these implants are gray-scale, not color,” explains Birge.
Despite these limitations, Wagner and Birge see tremendous potential in the technology.
“This design should work for all individuals with retinitis pigmentosa provided their bipolar and ganglion network is still active,” Birge says. “That applies to about 85 percent of the patients with retinitis pigmentosa. Age-related macular degeneration is trickier because there are different types. In general, our approach should work for about 50 percent of those with the disease. The lower number is associated with the fact that many people with AMD have lost an effective bipolar/ganglion network.”
Wagner adds: “It’s an exciting field. There’s a potential to help millions of people.”