Seed funds for gene therapy start-up

A new start-up company aiming to develop a gene therapy to ‘switch on sight’ by restoring the retina’s light-sensing cells has won vital funding to accelerate its research.


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Mirugen, founded at the Centre for Eye Research Australia, is one of the first biotechnology start-ups to receive seed funding from Australia’s national biotech incubator CUREator.

The Mirugen team, led by Associate Professor Raymond Wong, is developing cellular reprogramming technology to restore photoreceptors, the tiny light-sensing cells in the back of the eye.

Around the world more than 190 million people have retinal diseases where the death of these cells leads to vision loss and blindness.

Mirugen’s team is aiming to develop a gene therapy which would regenerate these lost cells to preserve and restore visual function.

Their research aims to develop a treatment for rare genetic inherited retinal diseases like retinitis pigmentosa and Stargardt’s disease but also more common conditions with a complex genetic make-up like age-related macular degeneration.

Translating research

Mirugen director Professor Keith Martin welcomed the CUREator funding as an important first step in translating lab-based research into a potential treatment for patients.

“This funding is critical in supporting an innovative new approach which could transform the way we treat blindness caused by retinal disease,’’ Professor Martin says.

Mirugen is the third spin-out company to be incubated at CERA – following on from ophthalmic referral platform Oculo (2015) and Enlighten Imaging (2019) which is developing a simple eye test to detect the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Developing start-up companies is an important part of our strategy at CERA to help scientists move their research from the lab to the clinic where it can make a real difference for people with eye disease,” Professor Martin says.

“Mirugen will be based at the Centre for Eye Research Australia and part of a collaborative environment which includes researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Surgery and the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.

“The unique environment which sees lab-based research occur alongside clinical research, provides a direct runway for taking promising pre-clinical research through to clinical trial.’’

Bridging funding gaps

Dr Simon Wilkins, Head of Operations at CUREator said the pre-clinical stream was designed to bridge a critical funding gap in the biomedical innovation journey from innovation to translation.

“We are thrilled to be providing investment to Mirugen through our inaugural funding round,’’ he says.

“CUREator will also provide continued support and guidance to help maximise the chance of success for this project as it advances along the pathway to critical commercial inflection points that prepare the company for further investment, licensing, or acquisition as appropriate.”

CUREator, delivered by Brandon BioCatalyst, is backed by the Australian Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund. The MRFF’s $80 million Early Stage Translation and Commercialisation Support Grant (ESTAC) aims to assist businesses to develop projects that support medical innovation in Australia through to proof-of-concept and beyond, providing opportunities for commercialisation.

CUREator is responsible for managing $40m of this fund, dedicated to supporting commercialisation of both pre-clinical medical innovations and early clinical development of therapeutics.

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