Health/Life Sciences

Cell remedy biotech raises $120M to advance remedy to deal with widespread cornea situation

Hazy vision is a symptom of corneal edema secondary to endothelial dysfunction. (Aurion Biotech Image)

Aurion Biotech has raised $120 million to advance its cell therapy for an eye disorder that affects millions of people. The startup is a spinoff of Seattle eye care company CorneaGen, and is located in Seattle, Boston and Tokyo.

Funds will be disbursed based on the company meeting key clinical and operational milestones.

Degeneration of the cornea with age or disease can result in a condition called corneal edema secondary to endothelial dysfunction. Associated with impaired, hazy vision and ultimately blindness, the condition affects about 4% of people over age 40 in the U.S.

Current treatment involves corneal transplantation, a complex surgical procedure. One healthy donor cornea is required to treat each diseased cornea, and many people forgo treatment.

Aurion Biotech CEO Greg Kunst. (Aurion Photo)

CorneaGen, which sells products for eye surgery, spun out Aurion to develop a cell therapy to address the limitations of current treatment procedures. The therapy is based on technology Aurion licensed in 2020 from the Kyoto Prefecture University of Medicine. There, professor of ophthalmology Shigeru Kinoshita and his colleagues developed a way to make cells in culture to treat the condition.

In 2018, Kinoshita published his technique, treating patients using cultured corneal endothelial cells. All 11 patients injected with the cells had restored transparency to their cornea and nine had improved visual acuity, the researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. Up to 100 eyes can be treated with material from a single donor, and the injection process is less complex than surgery, according to Aurion.

The treatment has since been tested in more than 100 patients in Japan and El Salvador, showing long term improvements in vision in phase 2 and 3 trials, according to the company. Aurion is preparing to submit an application for market approval to regulatory authorities in Japan, and is also preparing an investigational new drug application for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in anticipation of clinical trials in the U.S.

Aurion has been quietly growing over the last year and building up its leadership team. Last June, Greg Kunst was appointed as president and CEO; he previously was VP of global marketing and led business development at Glaukos Corporation, an ophthalmic medical technology company. The company’s chief scientific officer is Arnaud Lacoste, who previously directed cell and gene therapy programs at Novartis. Kinoshita is a member of the company’s medical advisory board.

The company employs 30 people, half in Seattle, including Kunst, CFO David Rostov, VP of manufacturing Tim Largen, and VP of marketing Judith McGarry. Lacoste is based in Boston.

“Our financing speaks volumes about the potential of our cell therapy to transform the lives of millions of people suffering from corneal endothelial dystrophies,” said Kunst in a statement announcing the funding.

The funding round was led by Deerfield Management and included Petrichor Healthcare Capital Management; Flying L Partners; Falcon Vision, an ophthalmology-focused investment platform through KKR; Visionary Ventures, an ophthalmology-focused venture fund; and Alcon.

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