New Start-up on the Front Lines of the Fight Against Inherited Eye Disease

Dr. Alan Marmorstein is helping to change and advance the ophthalmic research landscape through a new start-up company he launched with the help of Mayo Clinic and the local Rochester business community.

When Alan Marmorstein, Ph.D., arrived on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus four years ago, he had a specific goal in mind: Find a way to counteract the vision loss that often comes with common and inherited eye diseases like macular degeneration.

The biggest break in that quest to date, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reports, came when Dr. Marmorstein and his lab team at Mayo Clinic developed a new process for growing retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells, which are often used in eye-related research. According to the newspaper, stem cells reprogrammed from a patient's own skin cells can become these new and improved cells. Researchers believe that transplanting the new RPE cells into the retina could restore vision to those affected by macular degeneration.

To Dr. Marmorstein's (and other researchers') delight, these new cells, which are created from induced pluripotent stem cells, are proving to be "of better quality than the standard RPE cells" used in research. And demand is growing, according to Twin Cities Business magazine. There's just one catch. (Isn't there always?) The process for making the new cells "is not trivial" and is "more expensive," according to the P-B.

And so in 2015, Dr. Marmorstein launched LAgen Laboratories, a start-up company that focuses entirely on the "time-consuming," "expensive" and "particular" process of growing the cells for use by scientists at academic research facilities around the world. Using the process he helped develop (and has since licensed from Mayo Clinic), Dr. Marmorstein and his small team at LAgen grow the cells in their "biologics manufacturing facility" in Rochester. When the cells are ready, researchers can order them "in flasks, in multi-well plates, and in other forms."

"It's painstaking to generate these cells, but they're necessary to develop treatments for RPE-degenerative diseases such as macular degeneration, which affects as many as one-third of people older than 75," Dr. Marmorstein recently told Mayo Clinic's Alumni magazine. And while the P-B notes that business is booming for LAgen, Dr. Marmorstein tells the paper his young company's "ultimate goal is to treat macular degeneration."

Getting there, he admits, won't be easy (or quick). So for now, Dr. Marmorstein says he's just happy to have the continued support of Mayo Clinic and the Rochester business community. "I find Rochester to be very supportive of start-ups," he tells Alumni. "Mayo Clinic Ventures was encouraging and pointed me to local resources, including the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator and RAEDI (Rochester Area Economic Development Inc.). One step led to another, and I connected with other entrepreneurs in the city who helped with aspects of business I wasn't familiar with."

You can read more about Dr. Marmorstein's work to rid the world of inherited eye diseases here, here and here. Then be sure to show your support by sharing your comments below before you use the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.