BUSINESS INTERVIEW. Richard Kirk, chief executive of PolyPhotonix

Richard Kirk, chief executive of PolyPhotonix

Pioneering County-Durham based medical firm PolyPhotonix is backing calls during National Eye Health Week for an increase in funding to combat eye disease and sight loss.

PolyPhotonix is supporting a campaign by the National Eye Research Centre (NERC), which is calling upon Government, health and eye care organisations to increase research funding in the face of a predicted explosion of the number of people with eye disease.

The firm makes an innovative sleep mask called the Noctura 400, to treat diabetic eye disease.

After 20 years of being diagnosed with diabetes, nearly all patients with Type 1 and more than 60% of patients with Type 2 diabetes will have Diabetic Retinopathy (DR), which can cause blindness.

Traditional treatments involve laser surgery or injections directly into the eye. But, the new sleep mask is simply worn at night to reduce the eyes’ need for oxygen, to prevent and lessen damage.

PolyPhotonix was launched by CEO Richard Kirk and has managed to secure funding from Innovate UK, (formally called the Technology Strategy Board) the Small Business Research Initiative for Healthcare and the NHS.

The firm, based at NETPark, Sedgefield, is now revolutionising the treatment for DR, along with other eye diseases. Already some patients are using the sleep mask, and reporting improvements in their condition.

Based on company forecasts and financial modelling, the eventual estimated saving to the NHS if the eye masks are rolled out could be as much as £3bn over the next few years.

Richard Kirk, speaking out during National Eye Health Week, said: “While the sums involved in getting PolyPhotonix off the ground have run into millions, the potential saving to the NHS each and every year is several multiples of this. That just shows why supporting funding into eye disease is so important, not just to save the eyesight of people across the country and beyond, but for the financial viability of the NHS as a whole.”

Access to finance has been an issue for PolyPhotonix as private equity lending usually works on a three-to-five year cycle, which is much shorter than the typical research and development cycle required to take technology from the laboratory to market, which is usually over ten years.

Having been in development since 2009, PolyPhotonix is now beginning to take the Noctura 400 to market with partners The Outside Clinic and other independent opticians.

The firm is working closely with UK universities and has five trials currently running, to examine various aspects of macular eye treatments. It is also working closely with the NHS supplying Noctura 400 to develop a Patient Care Pathway model. This will lead to the eventual adoption of the treatment by the National Institute for

Health and Care Excellence and the NHS.

Richard added: “We’ve come a long way and it’s incredible to see our sleep masks now in use by patients. Our ultimate goal is to have our treatment available across the NHS. But, what we have achieved and what we hope to achieve would never have been possible without securing the right government funding. In recent years, there’s been no appetite to fund early research programmes with a significant manufacturing element so bank support has never been an option for us.”

Currently, 40 people lose their sight every day in the UK and two million are living with a degree of sight loss which impacts on their daily lives. This figure is set to double by 2050, driven by an ageing population and unhealthy lifestyles linked to diabetes.

But, eye research remains critically underfunded. Large research grants are often directed at other disease groups, with only 1p in every pound invested in medical research, currently being spent on eye disease.

National Eye Research Centre CEO Mike Daw said: “Flip a coin. Those are your odds of getting some form of Age Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) once you’re over the age of 65. Our ageing population is presenting huge challenges for the health service, and eye disease will rapidly become a burning issue as more conditions become prevalent with our advancing years.

“A multi-billion pound public health problem is only currently seeing 1% of medical research funding and that is not adequately keeping up with the scale of the issue. We must do more