Human beings have been aboard the International Space Station continuously now for over 17 years. Crews spend months orbiting the Earth, privy to some of the most breathtaking views in the universe. But what exactly are they working on while hurtling through space? A few months from now the answer to that question will be provided by LambdaVision, a Farmington company that has developed a retinal implant to restore vision to those afflicted with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
We first reported on LambdaVision in 2014 when co-founder, President and CEO Nicole Wagner and her partners secured $225,000 in funding to support their breakthrough in the fight against AMD — the leading cause of blindness for people 55 and older — and RP, a genetic disorder that can wipe out vision by age 40. Recognition for LambdaVision has grown, and that dollar amount has as well: funding is now up to $2.4 million.
“You go to pitch to [venture capitalists] and they’ll say ‘you’re too early’ or ‘you’re too late for us.’ If you [believed them] every time you heard that you’d stop right away,” Wagner says. “We’ve been that success story where people say ‘I believe in you.’ ”
LambdaVision began with Robert Birge, the Schwenk Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UConn who retired in May 2016. He came up with the concept of using a light-activated protein, bacteriorhodopsin, to stimulate the retina of people suffering from AMD and RP.
“The foundation [of LambdaVision] was the 35-40 years of research that was done by Robert Birge, who was the founder of the technology and our research adviser when we were graduate students,” says chief scientific officer Jordan Greco, who has worked side by side with Wagner since the company’s launch in 2009. “He’s still involved in what we’re doing now, but he moved out to Colorado with his wife and family. I think it has been difficult for him to kind of walk away from being involved, at least in the everyday sense.”
This summer Birge may be able to sneak an occasional peek at his life’s work flying overhead in the Colorado sky. LambdaVision received the CASIS-Boeing Award in November 2016 through startup accelerator MassChallenge, which affords it the opportunity to conduct experiments on the implant, or film, on the space station, in zero gravity. The launch is scheduled for May. “What it is that we’re trying to answer is tied to the manufacturing of the films,” Greco says. “We dip a film into a series of beakers, and then repeat that hundreds of times so that we have the eventual product. Throughout that process there’s a few important parameters that we need to control. … On the space station we’re moving gravity out of the equation, so we’re reducing sedimentation and aggregation of the proteins that are used in the solutions … leading to more stable films with better performance.”
Wagner, who estimates the MassChallenge prize is worth about $7 million in resources, and her team of six have proven they know their way around a lab. But a space odyssey is a different story. So LambdaVision is working in cooperation with Space Tango, a company based in Lexington, Kentucky, for the mission. “They’re the ones who are miniaturizing the device into this cube, basically a very small cube, and once it’s on the space station they insert it into their framework and press ‘go.’ They have control on Earth, and can run the software and run the experiments,” Greco says.
The implants that are produced during the roughly three months in space will be transported back to Earth by SpaceX. The goal then is to look at the quality of the implants. “We have a period of time where we’ll run these experiments to test the stability, to look at the quality, and really understand the difference and what the improvement was,” Greco says.
Testing of the implant on rats began in October and pigs are up next, while testing on humans is still two or three years away. Admittedly that timeframe is not soon enough for some. “We’ve met a lot of people who are suffering or have family members that have these diseases and that makes it personal,” Greco says. “We get phone calls, emails from people wanting to know more about the company, wanting to understand where we are in our commercialization path, when they can get into clinical trials. Seeing that, hearing that definitely makes it personal and does motivate us to want to make this happen faster, as fast as we can.”
Wagner says the goal is to target patients who are completely blind first. LambdaVision anticipates there will be at least a $1.5 billion market for RP alone.
“This technology, when [Birge] started it, he had no idea where it would turn out or what would happen,” Greco says. “And 35 years later we’re using this to restore vision.”