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Promoting a Shared Vision

By Raymund Flandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page E05

As Michael Kaleko kept running into people who were getting older and having more vision problems, he realized he could do something about it.

Early last year, he and two other scientists founded Advanced Vision Therapies Inc. of Rockville, which is developing a technology to treat back-of-the-eye diseases through gene therapy.

Michael Kaleko, center, Sheila Connelly and Tianci Luo founded Advanced Vision Therapies Inc. of Rockville, a biotechnology company that seeks to treat eye diseases with gene therapy. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Name: Advanced Vision Therapies Inc.

Location: Rockville

Big idea: Develops and markets therapies for the treatment of major sight-threatening eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss for people over age 50 in the Western world.

Founded: January 2003. Three scientists left Genetic Therapy Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, to found the company.

Web site: www.avtxinc.com

Who's in charge: Michael Kaleko, president and chief scientific officer; Sheila Connelly, vice president of development; Tianci Luo, vice president of research.

Funding: The company earlier this year received three grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling $687,000 to be used for research. It also has received funding from Montgomery County, the Maryland Technology Development Corp., and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

Employees: Five

Partnership: AVT is developing its products with academic collaborators from leading experts in the gene therapy field from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University and Stanford University. It also works closely with the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which is dedicated to finding cures for retinal diseases.

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"If we could do something to prolong people's vision, I personally would consider that a lifetime achievement," Kaleko said.

Eye-related diseases worsen as people age, with some leading to blindness. One of the most serious and debilitating eye diseases is age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. Caused by the hardening of the arteries that nourish the retina, it is the most common cause of vision loss in the United States in those 50 and older.

As one gets older, the back of the eye wears out to some extent, creating a loss of vision, and for some patients, new blood vessels that grow in the retina are defective. This is known as dry AMD. When these fragile blood vessels leak and bleed (wet AMD), however, it can rapidly lead to blindness, Kaleko said. About 10 percent of those who suffer from AMD have wet AMD.

AVT is developing a gene transfer vector, a vehicle holding a specific gene, that would be injected into the edge of the retina. The vector is supposed to bind to the cells in that area, releasing a gene. That gene is supposed to allow the cells to produce therapeutic proteins that would bathe the retina, knock out defective blood vessels and prevent others from cropping up, Kaleko said. A second AVT product would treat dry AMD and other eye diseases by keeping alive photo receptors, which enable people to see light.

Some of the treatments now used to slow vision loss, such as lasers or repeated injections to the back of the eye -- some every four to six weeks -- are either injurious or counterproductive, he said. Kaleko said his company's treatment "will be easier to take and be more efficacious in the long run."

AVT hopes to begin clinical trials in early 2006, pending Food and Drug Administration approval. The company is also seeking venture capital.

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