Boehringer Ingelheim fuels gene therapy startup focused on eye diseases

Another large drugmaker has boosted its stake in the comeback field of gene therapy. Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, the VC unit of the Germany-based pharma group, has injected an undisclosed amount of capital into Eyevensys, which uses electro-transfer in a gene therapy approach to treat ocular diseases.

Boehringer has bet on the startup amid growing interest from big-named drugmakers in the previously shunned gene therapy field. This month Novartis' ($NVS) venture fund joined VC firms in a $41 million funding round for Paris-based GenSight Biologics, which plans to replace genes to treat rare eye diseases. And last month Celgene ($CELG) sealed partnerships with investigators at Baylor and the gene-therapy startup bluebird bio to develop cancer immunotherapies.

The growing interest follows successful experiments from bluebird and others that have shown safety and efficacy of gene therapies in humans in recent years, renewing faith in a field that suffered from previous safety disasters in trials.

Founded in 2009, Eyevensys hopes to attract more new investors after securing support from BI in its second-round financing, with plans to wrap up the fundraising by the end of June with help from previous backers Innobio, CDC Enterprises, Inserm Transfer Initiative and CapDecisif Management. In addition to money, Boehringer is contributing guidance; the drugmaker's head of non-clinical research and development Dr. Michel Pairet has joined the board of directors at the startup.

Rather than viral delivery, Evevensys uses electrotransfer of plasmids into muscle cells in the eye to spur extended production of healing proteins, potentially for months between treatments. Over the next year and a half, the startup aims to complete preclinical work necessary to enter human studies. Its lead programs include therapies for uveitis and age-related macular degeneration.

"Eyevensys' novel approach, which targets pathologies where few therapies are available and offers potential advantages in terms of effectiveness, administration and tolerability, makes it a perfect fit with the Boehringer Ingelheim fund's criteria for investment," Boehringer's Pairet said in a statement. "In the future, medicine will increasingly rely on a combination of technologies, as we see here with the combination of gene therapy with a medical device."

- here's the release