Color blindness affects 8 percent of males and 0.5 percent of females, or approximately 10 million people in the United States. So says Avalanche Biotechnologies, a biotech firm that strives to develop gene therapies that will treat patients with sight-threatening ophthalmic diseases.
Avalanche Biotechnologies, located in Menlo Park, California, has teamed up with University of Washington “to develop products for the treatment of color vision deficiency (CVD), commonly known as red-green color blindness,” reported a news release on the company’s website.
Drs. Jay and Maureen Neitz, are husband-and-wife scientists at University of Washington who run a color vision lab at the University that studies the mechanism of color vision.
In 2009, the researchers successfully devised a technique to inject a gene that detects red color behind the retina of two male squirrel monkeys. The gene was placed inside a virus to permit its transport. Male monkeys are the perfect test models for humans as they are red-green color blind genetically from birth.
The procedure was successful. It did require surgery on the retina, which is too risky to perform on humans.
The Neitz team has been working for years to find a safe way to apply this technique to humans. With the help of Avalanche, they have been able to use an adeno-associated virus (one that does not cause disease) to contain the vision pigment gene. It can then be injected directly into the vitreous fluid, which is the jelly-like substance that fills the center of the eye.
“It’s a protein shell, kind of like a Trojan horse, that gets you entry into the cell. Once you’re there, the DNA gets to set up shop and produce the photo pigment of interest,” said Thomas W. Chalberg Jr., Ph.D., the co-founder and chief executive of Avalanche to the Seattle Times.
Color blindness can have life-changing effects on people. Some people with color blindness have been unable to pursue careers as airplane pilots or fire fighters or even electricians, whose work involves discerning between multiple color-coded wires.
David Curry, 33, of Port Townsend, told The Seattle Times he had to “abandon his dream of being a commercial helicopter pilot because of his deuteranopia, or red-green colorblindness.” He is very interested in talking to Dr. Neitz about what would be involved before he decides if he wants to be treated.
Chalberg told NPR that experimentation with humans should be possible in the next couple of years. The eye has been found to be a safe place to apply gene therapy for treatment.
"We like to say what happens in the eye stays in the eye, because it's kind of this small enclosed space."
If you want to learn more about color blindness, Avalanche has launched a website called Color Vision Awareness, to help people suffering from color blindness better understand their condition.
University And Biotech Firm Team Up On Colorblindness Therapy. NPR.org. Retrieved April 26, 2015.
UW scientists, biotech firm may have cure for colorblindness. The Seattle Times. Retrieved April 26, 2015.
News Release: Avalanche Biotechnologies and the University of Washington Enter Into Exclusive License Agreement to Develop Gene Therapy Medicines to Treat Color Blindness. Avalanche Biotechnologies.com. Retrieved April 26, 2015.
Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s health care and quality of care issues.
Edited by Jody Smith