Alan Stitt is an academic researcher at Queen’s University in Belfast (Northern Ireland). He researches diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and regenerative medicine, and is internationally recognized for his research in ophthalmology. In September 2019 he took a partial consultant position at Oxurion. His role is to advise on target preclinical development related to macular degeneration, diabetic edema and retinal disease.
In 2019, Oxurion made the strategic decision to also focus on research and development in dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD): a major cause of vision loss worldwide, but one with no effective treatment. This represents a huge challenge but Oxurion feels equal to the task. “The number of patients affected by dry AMD continues to increase and there is considerable research effort being channeled into better understanding the disease and, of course, developing an effective treatment”, explains Professor Alan Stitt, McCauley Chair of Experimental Ophthalmology at Queen’s University in Belfast.
Prof. Stitt: “Age-related macular degeneration occurs as two types, often referred to as wet or dry AMD. The vision loss associated with wet AMD (also called neovascular AMD) can be addressed using regular intra-vitreal delivery of drugs called anti-VEGFs. There are efforts to improve such treatments, such as with Oxurion’s THR-687 molecule. Dry AMD (also called geographic atrophy) affects a much greater proportion of patients, and unfortunately today their disease is largely untreatable.”
“Dry AMD is a slow, progressive degeneration in the macular region of the retina causing central vision deficits. For sufferers this greatly diminishes their everyday life by reducing the ability to do normal activities like reading, driving or even recognizing faces. In the worst-case scenario it can become impossible to live an independent life.”
Challenging & complex disease
An effective treatment for dry AMD could change many lives, but arriving there means navigating a long and challenging path.
“Dry AMD is a very complex disease to tackle”, Prof. Stitt points out. “Scientists are still trying to get a handle on what causes the onset of dry AMD and we still cannot reliably predict who will develop the condition and how rapidly it will progress. There can be distinct differences between patients diagnosed with dry AMD although we know this is influenced by factors like genetics, gender, ethnicity and tobacco smoking. There is much work under way to understand the drivers for this disease, especially in the early stages”.
“It would be ideal to intervene early when people still see reasonably well. Stopping dry AMD in its tracks will prevent progression to the late, sight-threatening stages of the disease. Once cells in the retina have died it is hard to replace them”, he adds.
We want to develop a treatment that addresses the underlying causes of dry AMD so that progression of the disease is stopped or at least slowed down.
– Professor Alan Stitt
Tackling the cause of the disease
Regarding treatment, Prof. Stitt is optimistic. “Our goal for both wet and dry AMD is to prevent the disease early when the retina’s cells are not too badly damaged. Many researchers across the world are seeking to tackle the underlying causes of AMD so its progression can be stopped or at least slowed. While they have been extraordinarily successful, anti-VEGF treatment for diabetic macular edema (DME) or wet AMD can prevent vision loss but they only suppress symptoms and don’t resolve the underlying cause. Therefore, patients must return regularly for an injection into the eye which, of course, is unpleasant and inconvenient. The recurring costs are also a burden for health service providers”.
While still committed to finding better treatments for DME and wet AMD, Oxurion recently announced that it is exploring new pathways for dry AMD. Since he shares Oxurion’s interest in these important diseases and its commitment to improve patients’ lives, Prof. Stitt was happy to accept an official partial consultancy role in the company.
The company’s research teams are working on preclinical models in dry AMD. “I believe the basic knowledge Oxurion has already developed with THR-149 and THR-687 in DME and wet AMD is very transferable to dry AMD. Its combination of established expertise in both retinal disease and therapeutic target development, plus translation into clinical results, positions Oxurion very well to do this”, Prof. Stitt concludes.
An ambitious plan for dry AMD in 2020
“Oxurion aims at delivering at least one dry AMD preclinical proof of concept. In collaboration with top retina experts such as Prof. Stitt, we are identifying the most promising pathways for treating dry AMD. Our goal is to make a difference in the life of these patients”, Patrik De Haes, M.D., CEO of Oxurion, says. “It must be clear that as soon as we can craft a value path for those patients, we expect this will automatically translate into value creation for our shareholders as well”, Thomas Clay, Chairman of the Board, adds.
Also read > Alan Stitt: “We need therapies fighting different hallmarks simultaneously”May 5th, 2020