A few weeks before Johnson & Johnson completed its acquisition of Abbott Medical Optics to bring under its J&J Vision umbrella, another J&J unit, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, licensed an early stage technology that aims to develop a nonsurgical treatment for cataract.
This is the kind of disruptive technology Janssen is looking to bring into its Disease Interception Accelerator, the unit that licensed the technology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to develop the nonsurgical cataract treatment. Presbyopia/cataract is one of the six clinical focus areas of the accelerator unit.
The nonsurgical cataract treatment could be years away at best or never get beyond the concept stage. The UMass technology is based on early phase discoveries of polymer physicist Murugappan Muthukumar, PhD. Brian Kenney, communications leader for Janssen, explains the company’s approach for advancing innovative solutions in ophthalmology: “The potential to intercept presbyopia/cataracts led to the creation of a venture area within the Janssen Disease Interception Accelerator, a group focused on creating a paradigm shift in healthcare moving from today’s diagnose-and-treat model to one of predict-and-preempt in the future.”
In a statement on Janssen’s website, Eric George, PhD, venture leader for the presbyopia/cataract initiative, lays out the strategy for pursuing innovations: “Presbyopia and cataracts are both linked to protein misfolding and aggregation.” That aggregation leads to lens stiffening – presbyopia – and eventual opacification – cataracts. “The interception of protein aggregation in the lens could have additional benefits, including a reduction in asthenopia [eye fatigue] and decreased incidents of falls and auto accidents among the elderly,” Dr. George’s statement says.
At UMass, Dr. Muthukumar’s research targets that aggregation of molecules in the eye’s crystalline lens, which he describes as “a collection of proteins.” His research has studied how light passes through the lens and how proteins and biopolymers within the lens scatter light. “Characterizing light scattering is a classic problem in polymer physics,” he says. His lab work has discovered the relationship between protein clumping and its molecular basis.
Kenney explains why Janssen licensed the UMass technology. “We review opportunities for disease interception based upon criteria such as size of unmet need, our ability to identify risk factors that characterize people at high risk for developing a disease/condition, our ability to identify a ‘target’ for intervention [whether pharmaceutical, device, or consumer solution], and the time period to intervene during a ‘disease interception window.’” Because cataract is the leading cause of blindness, it meets the unmet need standard, he says.
The UMass collaboration is one of 15 new healthcare research partnerships Janssen announced in the past month. Other focus areas for the Janssen Disease Interception Accelerator include type 1 diabetes, perinatal depression, mouth and throat cancer, gestational diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.