WSU vision-restoring technology wins national Angel Capital award

RetroSense Therapeutics, licensee of patented technology developed by Wayne State University School of Medicine scientist Zhuo-Hua Pan, Ph.D., has won the Luis Villalobos Award sponsored by the Angel Capital Association. The winner was announced Wednesday at the 2015 ACA Summit in San Diego. Named in memory of angel investor Luis Villalobos, the award recognizes startup innovation and ingenuity.

Zhuo-Hua Pan, Ph.D., scientific director of the Ligon Research Center of Vision at the Kresge Eye Institute, the Edward T. and Ellen K. Dryer Endowed Professor in Vision and Blindness Research in the Department of Ophthalmology, and professor of anatomy and cell biology in the School of Medicine, along with colleagues at Salus University in Pennsylvania, developed the breakthrough optogenetic approaches to restore vision through the use of a light-sensitive protein from green algae to confer new light sensitivity in the retinas in which rod and cone photoreceptors have degenerated.  As one of the advantages, the optogenetic approaches have the potential to treat all forms of blindness due to the death of photoceptors, independent of causative gene or mutation.

“This is a very unique and significant discovery developed right here in Detroit, and it will be a major step forward in the lives of patients with vision challenges,” said Kresge Eye Institute Director and Department of Ophthalmology Chair Mark Juzych, M.D. ’89.  “This honor will help RetroSense and Dr. Pan find additional funding to move the technology forward in to the clinical setting. They are most deserving of this outstanding award.”

RetroSense Therapeutics, LLC licensed the patented technology and is to develop the optogenetic gene therapies designed to restore vision in patients suffering from blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa and advanced dry age-related macular degeneration. There are currently no FDA-approved drugs to improve or restore vision in patients with these retinal degenerative conditions.  In 2014, the company was granted Orphan Drug designation for the treatment of RP by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In an angel-led round, RetroSense Therapeutics recently secured an angel-backed $7 million Series A financing which should enable the company to complete studies needed to enter clinical trials and fund early clinical development.

Dr. Pan and RetroSense Therapeutics Chief Executive Officer Sean Ainsworth were in San Diego when the final winner was announced.

“We’re honored to have been selected as a finalist for the Luis Villalobos Award,” Ainsworth said. “Given the sheer number of angel investments that transpire every year, to be included as one of three finalists for a national award is really meaningful.”

The Angel Capital Association is the leading professional and trade association focused on fueling the success of accredited angel investors and portfolio companies in high-growth, early-stage ventures. ACA provides professional development, public policy advocacy and significant benefits and resources to its membership of 220 angel groups and more than 12,000 individual accredited investors.

“RetroSense Therapeutics represents a rare opportunity for angel investors to participate in the biotech space,” said Ken Kousky, president of Midland, Mich.-based BlueWater Angels, in a news release. “The company’s virtual business model has been capital efficient by leveraging extraordinary talent from around the country. RetroSense is on course to reach a major value inflection point in the clinic, driven by financing from angel investors. It’s exciting to see something as game-changing as vision restoration being fueled by angel investment.”