U.'s Moran Eye Center partners with big pharma to fight blindness

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 6:55 p.m. MST

Kay Lipman, who suffers from age-related macular degeneration, uses a magnifier in addition to her reading glasses to help read. The University of Utahs John A. Moran Eye Center announced they are partnering up with California-based Allergan Inc. to uncover new treatments for AMD.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Kay Lipman gets medicine injected into her eyeballs every month to keep her from going blind.

It's the only available treatment to stave off age-related macular degeneration, which is slowly stealing away her sight.

"Your eyesight is so valuable, and you rely on it so much," Lipman said. "You really miss it when it's gone."

The 74-year-old Ogden woman can still safely drive during the day and occasionally swings a golf club, but she's lost the ability to thread a needle, needs her friends to keep track of her golf ball and requires heavy magnification to read.

Aside from a miracle, nothing can bring back the sight Lipman has already lost, but researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine's John A. Moran Eye Center are doing their best to try.

The group announced Thursday a one-of-a-kind partnership with California-based Allergan, a leading pharmaceutical company with a focus on biologic medicine. The dynamic duo hopes to uncover new treatments for age-related macular degeneration, as well as identify disease-associated pathways and targets for new therapies to treat other diseases of the eyes.

The research collaboration — with its undisclosed combination of upfront, milestone and royalties payments — will help make up for the shortfall caused by a recent reduction in available grant and research funding felt by universities across the nation, said Dr. Randall Olson, professor and chairman of ophthalmology at the U.

"We no longer have the luxury or the ability to get the external funding for research that we need," Olson said Thursday, calling it a critical need for advancement, particularly in ophthalmology. "Each year, it is more and more difficult."

The U. brings a wealth of knowledge to the research table, particularly in Dr. Greg Hageman, executive director of the Moran Center for Translational Medicine, who has been in Utah since 2009.

With the help of families all over the country, and many of those in Utah, Hageman has generated a repository of nearly 6,500 pairs of human donor eyes, 1,500 of which were donated in the past three years.

Researchers also have access to the university-housed and unique Utah Population Database, which contains more than 20 million genealogical records, an invaluable resource for genetic research.

"Together we can get to places we could only dream of about 10 years ago," Hageman said, adding that with the collaboration, the U. can "triple our chances of finding drugs for these diseases."

The local resources are great, but Allergan is home to hundreds of medically minded researchers and drug development experts who have the means and mechanics to move study to a tangible solution, which can benefit patients and their families.

The arrangement could potentially cut years off the drug development process, as well as save a great deal of the billions it usually costs companies to research, conduct clinical trials and market a new drug.

Olson said financial arrangements have already been made, but are not yet valued, as the work has yet to be done. The outcome of the agreement, which has been more than three years in the making, he said, has the potential to be "priceless."

Lipman, a patient at Moran, is one of more than 15 million people in the United States who suffer from age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of vision loss among people age 50 and older. She knew it was coming, as her now deceased mother was legally blinded by the condition, but she was diagnosed much later in life.

"I did not tell her I inherited this horrible disease from her," Lipman said, adding that her treatment at Moran has given her hope.

"They've come so far with their research," she said. "People of that era, when they got macular, there wasn't a lot they said they could do for her."

Early detection has partly saved Lipman from further blindness, and that is what researchers hope to build on, delaying the onset of devastating and irreversible blindness.

"It's like holding a fist in front of your face, and that fist blocks everything right in front of you, right in your line of sight. You still have your peripheral vision but can't see right in front of you," Olson said.

Hageman said nearly 50 percent of patients with late-stage macular degeneration don't respond to treatment.

"What we need are treatments for early stages," he said. "After that, a lot of the damage is done. If we can buy even 10 years of better vision, that's going to be really good for the patient."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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