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April 11, 2022 Tech 25

2022 Tech 25: LambdaVision has sights set on artificial retina to aid those with degenerative eye diseases

The prospects for LambdaVision are sky high.

Quite literally.

The firm’s signature product — an artificial retina that could change the lives of thousands with degenerative eye diseases — is under development aboard the International Space Station.

Working with logistics provider Space Tango of Lexington, Ky., LambdaVision has placed a shoebox-sized automated lab in orbit. The theory is that the microgravity of the space station could be the best place to actually manufacture the tiny, layered protein device LambdaVision hopes to implant in the back of the human eye.

The concept comes from the work of Robert Birge, a UConn chemistry professor and innovator in the field of light sensitive proteins. Today, he’s a member of the firm’s board of directors and carries the title of founder.

By using bacteriorhodopsin, a light-activated protein, LambdaVision’s artificial retina hopes to restore functional sight for patients with degenerative diseases, including age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. Current treatments can only slow the progression of the diseases that can result in blindness.  

But there’s a long road ahead before LambdaVision’s product can reach patients, CEO Nicole Wagner cautions. Tests on rats proved the concept and tests on blind pigs are next before the Food and Drug Administration allows any human testing.

Even if the artificial retina hits only green lights in testing, it’s likely to be into the 2030s before a product is commercially available, Wagner says.

And getting there is going to take a lot of money.

So far, LambdaVision has been working on a mix of grant money and small seed funding. In 2020, NASA provided $5 million as a commercialization grant to explore the idea of manufacturing in space over a series of flights. In 2018, Connecticut Innovations invested $500,000. A 2014 grant from the National Institutes of Health funded proof-of-concept testing on rats.

Raising an additional $20 million to $25 million in funding is next for Wagner as she increases staff. But she acknowledges money is only one of the challenges ahead.

She’s been trying to recruit research technicians and engineers and is finding the talent pool lacking. Part of the problem is the absence of a specialized eye research center in Connecticut.

She credits Connecticut’s supportive ecosystem with helping LambdaVision reach this stage. She’s on the board of CTNext and is involved in mentor and accelerator programs.

Still, she wonders if a move out of state might be necessary to propel LambdaVision to the next level.

Wagner expects to do clinical tests first on patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease affecting about 100,000 Americans. The 10% who are in end stage could form the first human test group, she explains.

Commercially, however, the larger market is those with age-related macular degeneration. Estimates put that number at more than 11 million Americans and almost 200 million globally.

And of course, there’s the issue of scaling manufacturing in orbiting commercial labs, a step that likely is some years away too.

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