Ram Nagaraj, PhD, professor in the University of Colorado Department of Ophthalmology, envisions a future where ophthalmologists can prevent vision loss associated with glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness in the world.
His new company could have a big role in that.
Eyegenex Inc., established earlier this year, is dedicated to researching and bringing two new therapies to patients who currently have no cure for the eye disease. Nagaraj enlisted fellow clinician-scientist Mina Pantcheva, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology, to be part of the company as an adviser.
The two treatments, a gene therapy and a peptide therapy, have already shown promise in reducing vision loss, says Nagaraj, who is the company’s chief scientific adviser.
“The peptide therapy is a short-term fix for certain glaucoma patients who require immediate care. This approach may involve multiple injections,” he explains. “In contrast, gene therapy is a lasting treatment that only necessitates one injection for individuals with primary open-angle glaucoma. This means that patients may not need additional injections.”
Mi-Hyun Nam, PhD, an ophthalmology research instructor in Nagaraj's laboratory, played a significant role in developing the gene and peptide therapies. Her work at CU has centered around ways to prevent ganglion cell death and blindness that occurs because of glaucoma.
Glaucoma often results in increased eye pressure and damage to the optic nerve, which leads to loss of vision. Of the four categories of adult glaucoma, primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common in the U.S. The disease can affect anybody, but older adults are at higher risk of developing loss of retinal ganglion cells and axons in the optic nerve, ultimately causing vision impairment.
A decade of research
While Eyegenex is new, Nagaraj’s commitment to developing glaucoma therapies is not. The researcher has been working on therapies for almost a decade with colleagues at the CU School of Medicine.
“The immediate goal with Eyegenex is to do more preclinical studies,” Nagaraj says. “And the ultimate goal is to give glaucoma patients a treatment that prevents vision loss.”
Nagaraj and Pantcheva see their therapies as an accessory to traditional methods of addressing the disease’s progression. Glaucoma patients are often prescribed eye drops to manage eye pressure. Eye drops, however, come with their own set of challenges, including compliance.
“Sometimes patients forget to take them, or they don’t administer them correctly, so there is pressure fluctuation that leads to vision loss,” Nagaraj explains. “Even in those cases, therapies that we might develop could be a shield to protect that patient’s vision.”
Preclinical studies of the two treatments Eyegenex is developing will pave the way for final products that need to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Agency.
Building a treatment foundation
For now, Nagaraj and Pantcheva say their mission is clear and their hopes are high.
“If we can prevent vision loss in glaucoma patients, that’s a huge accomplishment,” Nagaraj says.
For Pantcheva, who will act as an adviser when clinical trials begin in 2025, the prospect of developing a treatment for the patients she sees regularly is especially meaningful.
“This project is really close to my heart,” she says. “I always think about the patients who, despite lowering their eye pressure, continue to progress. As their physician, I think about whether there are ways to make their retinal ganglion cells stronger or more resilient.”
The work the researchers have done at the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center and now with Eyegenex has the potential to lead to even more discovery and treatment options.
“Five years from now, we may have additional therapies for glaucoma or other eye diseases,” Nagaraj says. “There is promise that Eyegenex can acquire those technologies in addition to what we have.”
Note: Eyegenex is led by Dr. Prasad Sunkara, an experienced biotech CEO, and Dr. Steve Gormican, a seasoned investor, physician, and Chief Medical Officer. The company received its initial funding from angel investment group NuFund Venture Group in San Diego.