Two pharmaceutical companies and a vaccine-maker invested in Eyestem (2022), putting the spotlight on the cell therapy company’s product pipeline. The six-year old company’s potential therapy for dry age-related macular degeneration, a global unmet medical need, awaits regulatory approvals in India for trial in humans, even as the company prepares to take the investigational new drug to Australia, says Eyestem co-founder and Chief Executive Jogin Desai.

Explaining Alkem, Natco and Biological E’s investments in Eyestem, Desai recollects how he had approached the companies’ promoters. And while a future scale-up or in-licensing may be of interest (when there is a final product), it is the science that caught their eye, Desai told businessline.

“The research was good, the team they liked ...and this allows them a way to understand how the research is developing at a much more micro level...and that would hopefully allow them to create decisions down the line,” he said, explaining the traditional pharma/vaccine companies’ interest in the fledgling company.

It’s hard to raise risk investment from venture capital in India, as they seek a sweet spot, not wanting to enter a firm too early or late, says Desai. His approach was to find investors who understood the risks and rewards of this business, its regulatory nuances and so on, he added.

The company’s pipeline includes potential therapies for dry AMD, retinitis pigmentosa, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In August 2022, Eyestem raised $6.4 million in a Series A round, led by Biological E Ltd), Alkem, Natco, and Anurag and Karan Bagaria, promoters of Kemwell Biopharma, said Eyestem. Existing investors, Endiya Partners and Kotak Private Equity, also participated in this round, valuing Eyestem at $46.4, that year.

Incurable to treatable

“Over the next few years, a lot of diseases that are currently incurable will start becoming treatable because of cell and gene therapy,” says Desai. Dry AMD is the largest cause for incurable blindness in those over 50 years, and 170 million people suffer from it globally, including 40 million in India.

Eyestem’s research involves identifying the specific cell “because [if] that cell is lost in the human body you get the disease. So, we create those cells inside through a repeatable predictable process and then hope that we can replace that cell inside the human body.”

Upcoming trial

The Phase I/IIa clinical trials will involve one-time sub-retinal injections to prove safety and efficacy of the product. Regulatory approvals for commercialisation comes only after that, and Desai expects the entire process to take about two years.

The current trial involves about 36 patients across LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad; AIIMS – Delhi; and Ganapati Netralaya (Jalna, Maharashtra). The trial will recruit those over 50 years, and older patients would be included depending on the doctor’s assessment.

While its early days to discuss pricing, Desai said “we have to create [a] therapy which decreases [the price] and by a significant factor. How much we will be able to decrease, I do not know completely at this moment.”