Imagen Biotech, Staffed With Eyetech Vets, Launches in NYC With Plan to Tackle Eye Diseases

Xconomy New York — 

Nearly a week after announcing its $40 million Series A financing, New York-based Imagen Biotech is still largely in stealth mode. But the startup’s chief medical officer, Matthew Feinsod, took a few minutes yesterday to talk with Xconomy about one of Imagen’s top priorities: finding new drugs to treat “dry” age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common disease of aging that can result in severe vision loss.

Feinsod, an ophthalmologist, and Imagen’s executive chairman David Guyer are best known for their stints at Eyetech Pharmaceuticals, which developed a drug to treat the “wet” form of AMD—a disease characterized by leaky blood vessels in the eye. The drug, pegaptanib (Macugen) was ultimately trounced in the market by ranibizumab (Lucentis), marketed by Genentech (now owned by Roche), and Eyetech was acquired by OSI Pharmaceuticals in August 2005 for $935 million.

During all that market-angling, the dry form of AMD was virtually ignored by the pharmaceutical industry, even though it’s more common than wet AMD. Dry AMD occurs when the light-sensitive cells in the macula begin to break down, causing blurred vision. About 15 million Americans have AMD, according to the National Eye Institute. All of them start with the dry form of the disease, which progresses to the wet form in 10 to 15 percent of cases. Wet AMD is the leading cause of blindness in people over age 60.

Feinsod says it made sense for the industry to go after wet AMD first because the physiology behind the leaky blood vessels was well-defined. “Dry AMD has historically been less well-understood—there’s been no one silver bullet,” Feinsod says. But the beauty of dry AMD is that it can be detected in a run-of-the-mill eye exam long before the patient experiences symptoms. That’s because the disease is marked by “drusen”—small, yellow deposits under the retina that often don’t cause symptoms but can be seen when the eyes are dilated. “The ideal scenario would be to initiate a treatment as early as possible to prevent vision loss,” Feinsod says.

Imagen’s funding was provided by SV Life Sciences, Fidelity Biosciences, and Novo Ventures. Feinsod says it’s enough to develop up to three separate drugs through “milestones that have not been disclosed.” He adds that the company is actively seeking molecules to develop, not just for AMD, but for any sight-threatening disease for which there are no good treatments. He can’t predict when the company will be ready to disclose details about its pipeline.

Feinsod says he believes the expertise of the company’s investors, combined with the Eyetech experience, will serve Imagen well. Executive chairman Guyer, now a partner at SV Life Sciences, was the CEO of Eyetech, and prior to that he chaired the department of ophthalmology at the NYU School of Medicine. Imagen’s chief scientific officer is Scott Cousins, professor of ophthalmology and director of the Duke Center for Macular Diseases. “We all recognize the devastating nature of these diseases,” Feinsod says. “We’re bringing that motivation to this company.”

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