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Meet the researcher working to prevent blindness

24 April 2023

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Dr Andrew Osborne is head of biology at Ikarovec, a start-up on Norwich Research Park. Find out how his research into age-related macular degeneration is working towards preventing sight loss for up to 170 million people worldwide.

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

What does Ikarovec do?  

Established in 2020, Ikarovec creates novel gene therapies designed to counter the effects of highly prevalent diseases which cause millions of people each year to go blind. Our lead programme is focused on treating age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness worldwide.

Our aim this year is to raise investment funding that will help us progress our therapies into manufacturing and toxicology studies. In the long term, we hope to see these therapies administered to patients. We’re still a small company of five people but we have ambitious growth plans.

What’s your role in the company? 

My role is to ensure the research team is operating efficiently. I oversee much of the preclinical work and ensure the programmes run on track to maximize the data we gather for each study. Each member of the team has a diverse skill set, so utilising their individual expertise is essential to finding new discoveries at Ikarovec.

What are gene therapies? 

Gene therapies are modified viruses packaged with beneficial treatments. We use safe viruses as transport vessels because viruses can effectively and efficiently infect human cells, in our case, cells of the eye. Once inside they can unload their cargo and the cells can then produce our treatments.

Gene therapies, to date, have normally looked at gene replacement, which only impacts small numbers of patients who have a gene mutation. Our unique concept is to target an established, clinically-proven component of the disease in combination with a factor to improve efficacy or address unmet aspects of the pathology.

Why is your work important? 

Around 170 million people worldwide are living with AMD and there is a lack of effective treatments.

Of all the senses, I think sight is the most important, as visual loss is so detrimental to quality of life. Basic corrections like wearing glasses or having laser eye surgery can dramatically improve vision, but back of the eye diseases often lead to irreversible sight loss.

Thankfully, the eye is an easy target for these therapies because it’s an isolated organ. It’s easy to access in terms of delivering therapy to the cells in need and results can be easily measured by established visual and functional tests.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in science? 

I grew up in Coventry before studying biology at the University of East Anglia (UEA) followed by a PhD in human ocular research. I then worked at the University of Cambridge and in 2015 I was fortunate enough to help spin out a gene therapy company, which gave me a taste of start-up life.

I’d always wanted a career that I was passionate about – and one which could help people. If your research can improve lives, it’s really rewarding. Science is ever-changing. You’re always learning in a science job. That constant progression drives advanced medicines and it’s exciting to see how things change and improve.

What’s your favourite thing about working on Norwich Research Park

Norwich Research Park has fantastic facilities for emerging and growing companies. Our lab space is affordable, and the park offers access to specialist equipment that start-ups typically cannot afford. We’re fortunate to have close links with UEA, the Quadram Institute and consultants at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Our work also allows the sharing of expertise. We’re currently taking part in a student recruitment exercise, whereby we can directly hire university graduates. It’s amazing having all this on our doorstep.

What do you get up to when you’re not working? 

My wife and I have young twins, so my interests very much align with keeping them entertained! We like reading, swimming and cycling together. Our family loves going to Center Parcs at Elveden Forest, as well as the Norfolk beaches and exploring the coastline.

I also love to travel – both with work and family holidays. I’ll be heading to Disneyland Florida in July, and New Orleans later this month.

Dr Andrew Osborne is head of biology at Ikarovec on Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @Andy__Osborne

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