Can a magnetic cell therapy replace corneal transplantation? As eight-year journey leads to the clinic, two brothers unveil bold vision
Jeff Goldberg was getting acquainted with a brand new way to do corneal transplants when an even newer, even bolder idea hit him.
It was almost 10 years ago, and Goldberg was in his first faculty position at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami. Scientists had developed a new way to do cornea transplants where instead of sewing a whole donor cornea — a decades-old practice — they were just engrafting the inner layer of cells.
“We were kind of working through that surgery, and I had what I would describe as one of my only a-ha moments in research,” Goldberg, now the chair of ophthalmology at Stanford’s Byers Eye Institute, told Endpoints News.
With the magnetic nanoparticles that he had been studying in his labs, he wondered, couldn’t he make these cells magnetic such that they can be brought to where they need to be after a simple injection, skipping the complex and risky procedure altogether?
He told his brother Roger, a retinal specialist who was also doing his training at Bascom Palmer. The younger Goldberg was immediately intrigued — enough to launch a biotech spinoff dubbed Emmecell together. And eight years later, they’re ready to pull the curtain on it.
The tech, he recalled, had broad potential applications and it was especially promising for corneal edema, which is often caused by degeneration in the cornea leading to extra fluid getting caught. Too often, patients must bear with blurry vision and painful blisters until their disease is bad enough to justify a surgery.
“It’s a disease that has no FDA-approved treatment, there is only corneal transplantation available with more advanced disease, and corneal transplantation is a major surgery, it’s technically very complicated, and actually only a select group of subspecialist ophthalmologists even perform these technical challenging surgeries,” he said.
Over the years the brothers have been working with a group of academic collaborators to advance the tech. Noelia Kunzevitzky, a former PhD student and co-founder, took up the clinical and regulatory charge, eventually following Goldberg from Miami to Menlo Park.
Emmecell is now headed to the clinic, after the FDA greenlights a Phase I trial for the lead product, EO2002.
The cell therapy essentially comprises three parts: corneal cells, magnetic nanoparticles tagged to them, and a shield containing magnets that are smaller than the knuckle of a pinky but strong enough to erase a credit card. After the cells are injected, patients would put the magnetic shield in front of their closed eyelids for a couple of hours — and the nanoparticles should go into the bloodstream and get excreted in urine while the cells stay.
So far, Jeff Goldberg added, Emmecell has been funded by private equity. The upcoming trial should confirm whether the treatment is safe for people and if it can benefit a broad swath of patients — even mild and moderate ones who wouldn’t have qualified for a surgery.