AGTC Inc (NASDAQ: AGTC) based in Gainesville, Florida and Bionic Sight LLC, based in New York, have announced a strategic collaboration to develop opogenetic therapies and devices for patients with visual impairments. AGTC Inc. has been involved with developing gene therapies for retinal disorders for over a decade, while Bionic Sight LLC was more recently founded to develop neuro-prosthetics to restore function to damaged or degenerated ocular tissues. The company is understood to be developing a technique that employs gene therapy and a wearable device that transmits light pulses to the brain. One of the founders of Bionic Sight, Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, actively researchers the field of how light impulses encode information interpreted by the brain.
The combined initiative will seek to develop a novel optogenetic therapy that builds on AGTC’s gene therapy experience to leverage improved performance from prototype neuro-prosthetic devices, including algorithms for “retinal coding” – the process through which light signals captured by the retina and shunted to the brain are converted into interpretable images. In patients with visual impairment the first stage of light capture is often compromised however, recent developments in optogenetics have broadened the available tool kit that might stand in for dysfunctional photoreceptor molecules. Optogenetics aims to use light sensitive molecules from a variety of biological sources to boost or assist residual activity in a medically relevant context. One of the most regularly used light-activated molecules is the channelrhodopsin-2 light-gated cation channels, originally derived from the green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. However, other groups have engineered novel optogenetic proteins that are customised to natural light intensities exploited by the human retina. Researchers are aiming to use novel optogenetic techniques to stimulate healthy cells in the retina and then for Bionic Sight’s neuroprosthetic device to stimulate those cells with the retina’s neural code to restore normal neural signaling in patients with visual impairment. According to a joint press release, the Bionic Sight device combines a camera with proprietary software that is capable of converting incoming images into a “retinal code” that is then capable of activating the optogenetic protein delivered by AAV gene therapy. Activation of this protein then causes the targeted cells to fire in specific patterns, potentially recreating images the brain can understand.
Commenting on the new collaboration, Sue Washer, President and CEO of AGTC stated that the company “is excited to combine our expertise in gene therapy and ophthalmology with Bionic Sight’s transformative device that incorporates the retina’s neural code to improve the lives of patients with retinal disorders. Bionic Sight has demonstrated an ability to mimic normal image formation in preclinical studies and we believe there is a potential to achieve an outcome for patients that greatly exceeds what is currently possible with prosthetic or gene therapy approaches in late stage degenerative retinal diseases.”