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Tufts doctors raise funding for start-up working on treatment for age-related blindness

Hemera Biosciences, a Boston start-up company working on a treatment for age-related blindness, has raised $3.8 million from investors to pursue its gene therapy for the affliction.

Age-related macular degeneration typically affects people over age 55 and is the leading cause of blindness in the United States and Europe, according to groups that advocate for the blind. Approximately 8 million Americans have a form of the disease, the company said.

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Hemera’s founders are doctors and faculty members at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston who have been working on the therapy for several years and started the company in 2010. Among them are Jay Duker, chairman of ophthalmology at Tufts, and Elias Reichel, vice chairman of the department.

Until now, the Tufts group has raised funds only among themselves and colleagues. This round of fund-raising includes support from the Fireman family, of the Reebok International Ltd. sneaker fortune. Adam Rogers, one of Hemera’s founders, is a brother-in-law of Dan Fireman, who runs Fireman Capital Partners, a Boston private equity firm.

Hemera is named for the Greek goddess of daytime, in a nod to light, versus the dark of blindness.

The Tufts doctors join a host of others trying to solve the problem of age-related blindness, including the likes of Cambridge biotech giant Genzyme Corp. Specifically, they are trying to stop the cell destruction that turns so-called dry macular degeneration into the blinding “wet” form.

The gene therapy, explained Reichel, one of Hemera’s founders, “is almost like a vaccine, where you prevent it from having the catastrophic form — you prevent severe vision loss.”

The scientist on the Hemera team working on the genetic research, Rajendra Kumar-Singh, has received funding in the past from the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a Baltimore nonprofit. While the group is not involved in this particular drug effort, its chief research officer, Stephen Rose, called Hemera’s approach unique. “It’s a worthwhile endeavor to give a try,’’ he said.

The company expects the new financing to help them create the new drug, test it on animals, and start a Phase 1 study in humans. If successful, their CD59 gene therapy technology could be a long-term treatment for a chronic condition, “the number one leading cause of loss of vision in the developed world,’’ Reichel said.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.
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