Fighting Blindness through Sound Investments in Research

Since 1971, the Foundation Fighting Blindness has raised more than half a billion dollars in support of its mission to put an end to retinal diseases. Those diseases affect more than 10 million Americans at risk of vision impairment, legal blindness or total blindness. Because age-related macular degeneration (AMD), one of the diseases we target, is the leading cause of blindness in people over 55, and because the Baby Boomer population is aging, that number is expected to increase dramatically. If there was ever an urgent message to get across in October, which is Blindness Awareness Month, it’s the need to continue in full force toward preventions, treatments and cures.

Fortunately, there’s also good news to share. Over the past 10 years, researchers have made extraordinary progress in developing technology and treatments so promising that the Foundation has vowed to significantly increase its funding commitment over the next several years. Since March, we have awarded more than $6 million in grants to 15 lab and translational projects, which range from identifying the causes of specific diseases to developing gene therapies targeting multiple diseases. The latter, in particular, is a project no one could have predicted more than a decade ago.

In the last 10 years, projects we supported at various stages of their development have come to fruition—most notably two that have made national headlines. Back in February, the FDA granted market approval to the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis, otherwise known as the “bionic retina,” which enables those who’ve gone completely blind to see light and shadow. As device creator Second Sight’s CEO has noted, the Foundation provided all-important seed money early on.

We shared details of another project during the keynote luncheon address at the 2010 BIO International Convention. Starting in 2008, clinical trials for a gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis, a juvenile form of retinitis pigmentosa, have successfully treated more than 40 people by restoring partial vision. A video telling the story of Corey Haas, one of the trial participants, effectively demonstrates the life-improving effects of this therapy.

But those who will benefit from the LCA therapy are relatively few. Millions more await the treatments that will be nurtured and ushered into clinical trials by the Foundation Fighting Blindness within the next decade. With sequestration and budget challenges negatively impacting the National Institutes of Health — and the National Eye Institute, in particular — our role in advancing treatments is more important than ever. By investing in cutting-edge approaches early on, when others won’t take on the risk, the Foundation is filling a key void and keeping the promise alive of preventing vision loss due to retinal degenerations.

We can thus be viewed as a “matchmaker of science,” bringing together researchers on the front lines, small biotechs, big pharma and venture capitalists to foster collaboration and help attract the major funding necessary to bring treatments to the marketplace. To boost our focus on translational research, we created the Foundation Fighting Blindness Clinical Research Institute, whose mission is to bring these parties together to advance treatments into and through clinical trials.

In addition, our Translational Research Acceleration Program (TRAP) supports some of the world’s leading retinal researchers working toward launching new clinical trials within the next few years.  Their research spans the areas of genetics, drug discovery, stem cell treatments and gene therapy, demonstrating our pursuit of multiple research approaches. Because there likely isn’t a “one size fits all” treatment for the spectrum of retinal diseases, exploring cross-cutting methods is another core strategy.

In the vein of venture philanthropy, the Foundation also will continue to leverage relationships with start-up biotech companies to foster treatments. For example, Applied Genetic Technologies Corporation and GenSight Biologics are companies that received tens of millions in venture capital funding for their gene therapies, thanks to the Foundation’s early support of the promising projects they are now funding. We’ve also backed a startup company, MitoChem Therapeutics, with a $2 million investment to move its potential treatment into a clinical trial.

Our multi-pronged approach supports the world’s leading retinal researchers, facilities and treatment developers. It has gotten the Foundation where we are today – on the verge of ending blindness caused by retinal diseases.

Bill Schmidt is the CEO of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. For more information about the Foundation Fighting Blindness and research progress, visit www.FightBlindness.org. You can also find the organization on Facebook, Twitter, Word Press, YouTube and Instagram

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