Two groundbreaking projects awarded

‘Moon Rocket Grant’ awarded to two groundbreaking projects

At this moment, there is no treatment yet for Usher Syndrome, a disorder that globally 400.000 people suffer from. In order to find a treatment that can stop, slow down or even reverse the process of becoming both deaf and blind, more knowledge and research into Usher Syndrome are needed.

Therefore Stichting Ushersyndroom (The Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation) presents the ‘Moon Rocket Grant’: € 200.000, – for research into Usher Syndrome with a maximum of € 100.000, – for each study.

The Moon Rocket Grant
Stichting Ushersyndroom has launched the Moon Rocket Grant: a large pot of money for pioneering research into (a treatment for) Usher Syndrome. The objective of the Moon Rocket Grant from the Stichting Ushersyndroom is to effectuate a moonshot formulated by us: ‘A treatment for Usher Syndrome in 2025!’ This moonshot includes all types and subtypes of Usher Syndrome.

The study proposals must fit in with one of the four core values of the ‘Moon Rocket Grant’: Treatment, Knowledge, Diagnostics and Impact.
Every study (fundamental, translational or clinical) must lead to a treatment option, more knowledge and understanding, better diagnostics and an increase of the impact for every type of Usher Syndrome.

The Medical Advisory Council extensively tested and assessed all submitted study proposals. After this first assessment there was a second round: an on-line presentation with a short interview, after which the final selection for the award was made.

The Moon Rocket Grant goes to …..

Stichting Ushersyndroom announces with pleasure that two projects are eligible for the Moon-Rocket Grant 2022.

Prof Mariya Moosajee (UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, London, UK), will receive € 100.000, – for the project:

Prof Mariya Moosajee

“Large Gene Augmentation with non-viral episomal vectors for Usher syndrome”

Use of non-viral plasmid vectors for Usher Syndrome
It is well-known that the AAV (adeno-viral virus) vector is used for gene therapy, but this vector has a limit to the size of the gene. Most Usher genes are way too large for being packed into an AAV vector. When applying gene therapy to the retina of patients using the AAV vector, sometimes thinning of the retina (also called atrophy) can develop. Therefore alternative ‘packaging’ vectors are to be found for future gene therapies for Usher Syndrome.

Prof Mariya Moosajee has in cooperation with Dr Richard Harbottle (DKFZ German Cancer Research Centre, Heidelberg) developed a DNA plasmid (USH2A-S/MAR-vector) which can hold the full-length USH2A-DNA.
The DNA plasmid has been tested in a zebrafish model as well as in patient cells taken from a skin biopsy.

Prof Mariya Moosajee will use the ‘Moon-Rocket Grant’ to test the system of DNA plasmid in an already existing rabbit model for USH2A.
If the application of this alternative gene replacement strategy turns out to be successful, this will have a great impact for all inherited reti

nal diseases. After this study, it may be possible to start a phase 1 clinical trial for patients and it also may offer solutions for other large Usher genes. Gene therapy making use of DNA plasmid may have additional advantages; application (several times) with a limited immune response. Prof Mariya

Moosajee hopes this approach will be safer and can avoid some of the complications that are seen in the current viral gene therapy. This project will at least take 2 years and has been budgeted at over € 200.000. Moorfields Eye Charity and Cure Usher will also be contributing to this project. With the contribution of the ‘Moon Rocket Grant’ from the Stichting Ushersyndroom the budget has been covered and the study can start.

The second project to be financed by the Moon Rocket Grant is the study of Monte Westerfield (Neuroscience, university of Oregon) and Erwin van Wijk (Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen, the Netherlands) entitled:

Prof. Monte Westerfield and Dr. Jennifer Phillips

“Exon-skipping as a future treatment for USH1F associated retinal disease” 

In this collaborative study Monte Westerfield of the University of Oregon and Erwin van Wijk of the Radboud UMC will develop and evaluate a treatment for Usher syndrome type 1F-related retinal disease based on the exon skipping methodology.

About 20.000 people worldwide lose their eyesight as a consequence of PCDH15 mutations. This condition is named USH1F.
The PCDH15 gene codes for the protocadherin 15 protein (PCDH15 protein) and is essential for normal eyesight and hearing. The PCDH15 protein contains multiple predicted extracellular cadherin (EC) domains. Many USH1F patients have mutations in the region encoding the EC domains number 6 (EC6) and 7 (EC7), resulting in a non-functional or even absent PCDH15 protein.

The ultimate goal of the researchers is to develop a treatment that halts the progression of PCDH15-associated visual dysfunction. For this, they will adopt the principle of “exon skipping” and develop a “genetic patch” that will instruct the light-sensitive cells inside the eye to skip the region of the PCDH15 gene that codes for the EC6 and EC7 domains. In this way a somewhat shorter but hopefully still functional PCDH15 protein is produced, specifically lacking the EC6 and EC7 domains.

A pilot study exploring the therapeutic potential of “exon skipping” for USH1F was conducted some years ago. In this study the researchers targeted another domain in the protein, but this did not result in a restored function of the PCDH15 protein. With the knowledge gained in the past few years the researchers can now better predict whether or not the remaining protein after exon skipping will be functional. Based on these improved prediction tools they now opt for “skipping” the region encoding EC domains 6 and 7.
In previous studies of both Monte Westerfield and Erwin van Wijk it was shown that zebrafish are suitable animal models for this study. To obtain functional proof for the proposed concept of skipping the EC6-EC7 encoding region of PCDH15, the researchers aim to remove this part of the PCDH15 gene from the zebrafish genome and analyze whether these ‘treated’ zebrafish will have a better eyesight than the untreated mutant zebrafish with USH1F mutations.

This research project was budgeted at € 100.000, – for a period of 24 months.

The objective of Stichting Ushersyndroom is to finance scientific research that is to lead to a treatment that will show down, stop of even reverse the deterioration of hearing and eyesight. Apart from this, the foundation also (financially) supports the improvement of the quality of life, the growth of knowledge and information about Usher Syndrome and to enhance the contact between fellow-sufferers.

You can also donate directly to Stichting Ushersyndroom by using the QR code.