Glaucoma is an eye disease that is linked to old age and will only become more common as the population ages. The disease is characterized by the progressive loss of nerve fibres in the optic nerve, which slowly leads to further loss of the field of vision and results in visual impairment and, in the worst case, blindness. As yet, there is no treatment for glaucoma. People suffering from glaucoma usually have increased eye pressure, and the only effective treatment so far has been to decrease this pressure. Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness globally and is expected to have caused blindness in 76 million people aged between 40 and 80 by 2020. This is expected to increase to 112 million in 2040.
Henny Beckers and Len Pinchuk are collaborating with researchers from the University Clinic for Ophthalmology in Maastricht and Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) to make glaucoma surgery simpler, safer, and more reliable for a larger target group. Within the SEAMS project, they are developing a unique dual concept consisting of an implant and medication. An implant that regulates eye pressure is placed in the eye together with a release system, which slowly breaks down and ensures a gradual release of the medication. This method optimally regulates eye pressure and prevents scarring around the glaucoma implant.
‘We see that the current treatments aren't achieving the desired results. They're outdated. Since the early 1980s, the treatment of glaucoma has been increasingly dominated by the availability of new combinations of medication, such as drops, while the number of conventional surgeries has decreased. The operations are not popular among doctors and patients because they can cause complications, require many follow-up checks, and involve long recovery times. This is why a necessary surgical procedure is often postponed for a long time – sometimes too long. Patients continue to be prescribed eye drops until the disease reaches an advanced stage and irreparable damage has been caused to the eye.
We are talking about a global problem that should not be underestimated. In Western Europe, 25% of patients end up blind in one eye, with 10% even ending up blind in both. In 2019, with the knowledge and resources we have, this figure is truly shocking. As it’s not yet possible to treat the cause of glaucoma, we must at least focus on better treatments for eye pressure.’
‘My company InnFocus is at the forefront of these technologies and has the best materials in the world. I’m the inventor of a new material that’s very suitable for use in the eye, and we've gained experience in glaucoma treatments with an existing product. As a company, you come up with solutions, but you don't know exactly where the problem lies. The SEAMS project gives us the opportunity to home in on the link with research. Having Henny Beckers as the project leader means we can work with the key opinion leader who knows the problem inside out. I have great admiration for her, as she's the one who can make the product work. Henny is probably one of the few people in the world who has the patience to continue this and to see it succeed. It’s my job to ensure the product is approved under current regulations, which is something my company has over 30 years of experience in,’ says Len Pinchuk.
‘This partnership provides scope for entrepreneurship, because everything is well organized. There are unique people, unique materials, and enough resources. The combination of universities, doctors, and industry players makes it more special than a National Institute of Health (NIH), for example. Pooling the intellectual capacities and experience of various companies and institutes and having this coordinated by an expert such as Henny means this research can truly benefit society, and not just in terms of glaucoma treatments. Henny fully agrees. ‘InSciTe offers us a unique opportunity; it gives us the strength to achieve huge things. The InSciTe formula makes it possible not only to generate ideas but also to make them a reality. Without them as a catalyst, we would not be able to achieve this. Isn't it the dream of every doctor to create something that has value – not only in a commercial sense, but above all in being able to offer your patients a better treatment?’
‘InSciTe is responsible for world-class projects and is embarking on even more interesting ones,’ says Len. ‘At InSciTe's annual meeting, I also met the team from a cardiovascular project [eds. XS-GRAFT]. I'm talking to them about new materials. As part of the InSciTe consortia, we can create a huge impact in the treatment of a number of major diseases. I also see more opportunities for research projects on ocular drug delivery systems. This is a hot topic, and the knowledge and skills we're gaining will open up many new doors.’
Henny also says she has ideas for new projects and is discussing them with InSciTe. ‘This type of collaboration offers opportunities for innovations that not only help patients but also generate economic activity and spin-offs.’
Leonard Pinchuk (Ph.D., D.Sc. (h.c.), NAE, FAIMBE, Russ Prize Lauriate) is an inventor and entrepreneur with 129 issued US patents, 90 publications, and 10 companies that he co-founded. His major accomplishments include the invention or co-invention of the modern-day angioplasty balloon, the helical wire stent, the modular stent-graft, a drug-eluting stent (TAXUS®), several biomaterials, a novel glaucoma shunt, and the next-generation intraocular lens material. He was the recipient of the 2017 Society for Biomaterials Innovation and Technology Award, the San Antonio BIOMED SA Award and the 2019 National Academy of Engineering Russ Prize Award.
He received a BSc in Chemistry from McGill University (1976, Montreal, Canada), an interdisciplinary PhD in Engineering and Chemistry from the University of Miami (1984) and an honorary Doctor of Science degree from McGill University (2005). He was inducted into AIMBE in 2007 and the National Academy of Engineering in 2012.
Dr Pinchuk began his career in 1983 at Cordis Corporation and left in 1987 to co-found Corvita Corporation (angioplasty catheters, stents, and stent-grafts), which is now part of Boston Scientific. Dr Pinchuk founded Innovia LLC (2002), which incubated and spun off many companies working in the fields of intraocular lenses, glaucoma shunts, radiation oncology, urology, gene therapy, and others. His current company, InnFocus, Inc., developed a novel treatment for glaucoma that was then acquired by Santen Corporation in 2016. Dr Pinchuk also enjoys an appointment as a Distinguished Research Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Miami.
Henny J. M. Beckers (MD, PhD, FEBOphth) has been an associate professor and glaucoma specialist at the University Eye Clinic Maastricht, the Netherlands, since 1998. She receives many tertiary referrals for glaucoma patients and plays an active role in the management of glaucoma, with a special focus on glaucoma surgery in the Netherlands. In addition, she is the director of the Ophthalmology Residency Program and a member of the Medical Staff Board of the Maastricht UMC+. Since 2009, she has been the Secretary of the Netherlands Glaucoma Group, an active committee of Dutch ophthalmologists with a special interest in glaucoma.
Her chairmanship includes the regional, national, and international glaucoma symposia. Her teaching activities include coordinating postgraduate training courses for ophthalmologists and optometrists on the subject of glaucoma.