Jul 21, 2014
09:05 AMHealth & Wellness
CT-Based LambdaVision Working To Restore Sight to Those Who Have Lost It
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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.