Executive Changes at RTP Gene Therapy Startup Opus Genetics and Parent Nonprofit FFB

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The Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB), with a spinoff startup headquartered in Raleigh, is changing its executive leadership team.

The Maryland-based nonprofit has promoted Jason Menzo to the lead role of chief executive officer and Russell Kelley, Ph.D., to become managing director of the Retinal Degeneration Fund (RD Fund), FFB’s venture arm.

Both appointments commence July 1.

Meanwhile, Ben Yerxa, Ph.D., who has served as CEO of the Foundation since 2017, will transition to assume the permanent CEO position for Opus Genetics, the first spinout company “internally conceived and launched” by the RD Fund less than a year ago.

Ben Yerxa, Ph.D.
Ben Yerxa, Ph.D.

“I’m exceptionally proud of the progress we’ve made toward our mission during my nearly five years at the Foundation, including the launch of the RD Fund to further the Foundation’s mission through venture philanthropy,” said Yerxa, who is also a member of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s board of directors.

“Stepping into the permanent CEO role at Opus Genetics -- a company that we created and launched through the RD Fund -- enables me to be on the front line of bringing potentially life-changing treatments to the patients who so urgently need them.”

Since launching in 2018, the RD Fund has raised roughly $115 million to find treatments and cures for blinding retinal diseases.

In September 2021, it allocated roughly $19 million in seed funding to spin out Opus, a gene therapy startup that is tackling manufacturing obstacles for ultra-rare blinding conditions.

The company’s lead programs are licensed from the University of Pennsylvania and focus on treatments to address mutations in genes that cause different forms of Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA).

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LCA is a group of rare inherited retinal diseases that typically present in infancy and are characterized by degeneration of photoreceptors, the cells in the retina that make vision possible.

"[Ben] was the right person at the right time for the Foundation, and we are pleased that he will stay close to the organization as he leads Opus Genetics,” said David Brint, chairman of the Foundation board of directors and member of the RD Fund board of directors.

Opus’s lead program, OPGx-001, is designed to address mutations in the LCA5 gene, which encodes the lebercilin protein. LCA5 is one of the most severe forms LCA and affects approximately one in 1.7 million people.

The company’s second program, OPGx-002, focuses on restoring protein expression and halting functional deterioration in patients with retinal dystrophy caused by mutations in the retinal dehydrogenase (RDH12) gene (LCA13), which affects one in 288,000 people.

Recent preclinical data have demonstrated the potential for both novel approaches to restore structure and function. 

Since its launch, Opus has opened its third preclinical program from Massachusetts Eye and Ear, the primary teaching hospital at Harvard Ophthalmology.

Chantal Allam, NCBiotech Writer
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