Benjamin Yerxa, PhD, recently appointed CEO of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, aims to expand relationships with the financial community to facilitate research into new science and potential therapies for inherited retinal diseases.
In an interview with Primary Care Optometry News, Yerxa discussed his passion for gene therapy research and how the Foundation for Fighting Blindness (FFB), a private source of funding with a global reach, plans to target new technologies for prevention, treatment and cure for retinal degenerative diseases.
Yerxa previously served as president and cofounder of Envisia Therapeutics and currently holds more than 60 U.S. patents. His professional experience spans ophthalmology, pulmonary, cardiovascular and HIV therapeutic areas.
PCON: How will your decades of experience in ocular drug development aid you in your new role?
Yerxa: When I think about what I’ve learned over the years in industry, from drug discovery to drug development, it’s very similar to a lot of the work that FFB is doing. In terms of understanding drug discovery on new targets and new mechanisms of action, I have experience there.
As for the translational piece, once you have a new idea: How do you create a new therapy? How do you translate that into something that goes into the clinic?
This is something that I’ve enjoyed doing in many settings with new chemical entities or new drug delivery techniques, to take new technology and get it into the clinic as fast as possible to answer the question: Does it work? That’s something I’ve done several times in the past and that gives me a lot of energy.
PCON: What will your main focuses be for your first year?
Yerxa: When I look at the landscape of new science and new potential therapies, it’s based around: How do we optimize the portfolio of projects that we’re funding? How do we optimize our process for scientific evaluation?
A big part of what I want to focus on is how we use our capital to fund those programs and to find ways to adapt our model to get more capital into the field.
I look forward to expanding partnerships with the financial community, along with venture, biotech and pharma. We already collaborate with them, but to build on those relationships will be important for us.
PCON: What’s next for inherited retinal disease research and treatments?
Yerxa: The top of everyone’s mind is gene therapy with Spark Therapeutics and its potential product on file at the FDA. It’s an exciting moment for the field to see the potential for gene therapy in inherited retinal disease come to fruition. I think it’s the first step in the future. We are excited about this early success story and what that means on building on future genetic therapies.
Whether it’s true gene therapies with viruses as a container, or whether it’s another approach to make a nucleic acid and gene editing, it’s very exciting, as is applying these new technologies directly to the genetic source of the disease.
I’m also excited about understanding the mechanisms for panretinal approach, approaches independent of the gene in question, but more of a downstream kind of approach for attacking the disease process.
Stem cells and cell therapy in general is also starting to come of age, and some important advances in that field are coming from retinal stem cells.
Finally, that combination of things is exciting, where genetics meets cell therapy or optogenetics, where you can adapt a different kind of cell to be light sensitive, and ways to get very creative with a new toolbox to make the retina more sensitive to light again.
I think it’s those unique buckets but also a combination of them that can lead to some unique approaches.
PCON: What is the role of optometrists in Foundation Fighting Blindness?
Yerxa: Optometrists are on the front line; they are primary care for the eyes for many people.
Being able to recognize inherited retinal diseases on a standard exam may be tricky, but I think understanding the key tenets of inherited retinal diseases will be helpful, along with referring patients to the right care eventually.
Being aware of FFB and letting patients know we are here as a resource for anyone who’s affected or afflicted with inherited retinal disease is important. We are here to help patients and families work through it.
We want them to know there is free genetic testing that we make available through our patient registry called My Retina Tracker. It’s for any family that has a history of inherited retinal disease. We’d love for practitioners to help spread the word.
PCON: What can we expect from FFB in the future?
Yerxa: I think you’ll hear a more prominent voice; I think you’ll will see us getting more involved, playing a stronger role.
We look forward to partnering with the optometry community, even if it’s helping with fundraising to channel that money into research dollars. We invite involvement by anyone to help us out. We are excited about the future now that the technology is really coming of age, but we are limited by our capital.
Our website www.fightblindness.org is a good resource for doctors and patients to gain more information about specific diseases and the registry. – Interviewed by Abigail Sutton
Disclosure: Yerxa is stockholder in Clearside Biomedical.