January 3, 2006.
TORONTO -- Joe Christian is watching an Ocean's Eleven DVD from his bed at a Veris Health Sciences AMD clinic in Toronto, where his blood is being filtered in a dialysis-like procedure that has a good chance of saving his eyesight.
"When it's all said and done, it'll cost me $35,000 out of my own pocket for the treatments and travel," said the 75-year-old retiree from Beauport, N.C. "But if it costs $350,000, it'd be worth it."
Mr. Christian is one of an estimated 17 million people in North America suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in seniors. His condition is the common dry version of AMD, where blood vessels at the back of the eye become clogged and can't deliver nutrients to retinal cells, leading to irreversible vision loss.
For years, eye specialists have treated dry AMD with a hodge-podge of vitamins, in hopes of delaying the inevitable progression to wet AMD, which can rapidly deteriorate to legal blindness. Wet AMD is now being treated with lasers and drugs injected into the eye as a way of slowing vision loss.
The dry AMD blood filtering technique, which is known as Rheopheresis, was developed in Germany and the technology is being rolled out across North America by Mississauga-based OccuLogix Inc., a spinoff of TLC Vision Corp. Treatments are only available at five Veris clinics in Canada for now.
Rheo, as it's known, uses a unique filter designed by Japan's Asahi group to remove high molecular weight compounds from blood plasma, improving circulation throughout the body and micro-circulation at the back of the eye. Mr. Christian claims the treatments have even improved his cholesterol and arthritis.
"One of the most appealing aspects of Rheo, beyond its potential clinical efficacy, is that the lack of competitive products on the market or in development," said Westwind Partners analyst Aaron Bennett. He began coverage of OccuLogix last month with a "buy" rating and 12-month target price of $14 (U.S.). The stock closed Friday at $7.20 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Mr. Bennett's valuation depends on OccuLogix reporting positive data in the first quarter from a pivotal clinical study. If successful, the company plans to quickly file with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, targeting marketing approval by the end of 2006.
At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmologists last fall, OccuLogix presented interim data from its pivotal study. Chief executive officer Elias Vamvakas, a co-founder of TLC, said the presentation went a long way toward gaining credibility with eye doctors. "Many heard about Rheo for the very first time in a scientific forum." The opinion of ophthalmologists and retinal specialists is important because they will refer patients to a Rheo clinic and may supervise dialysis nurses that actually perform the procedure.
OccuLogix this month also established a blue-ribbon scientific advisory board that Mr. Bennett said was a "significant step in increasing the credibility of Rheo in the ophthalmic community." Successful clinical results "should alleviate much of the remaining credibility gap," he added.
OccuLogix could be sitting on a bonanza if the clinical study pans out. With eight million late-stage dry AMD patients in the United States, Mr. Vamvakas said penetrating 2 per cent of that market could generate $1.5-billion in annual revenue, based on eight treatments each, with filters that the company sells for $1,200 apiece.
Veris Health Sciences Inc. is planning to open a network of clinics in the United States in 2007, if OccuLogix gets FDA approval.
Source URL: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20060103/RAMD03/TPBusiness/Canadian.
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