LONDON — Neurotech SA signed a three year collaborative agreement with the Institute of Ophthalmology, in London, to develop cellular treatments for age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), the main cause of blindness in elderly people. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

According to Paris-based Neurotech, ARMD affects six percent of the population over 65 and it is estimated more than 8 million people worldwide will suffer from the disease by 2000.

The degeneration of the central portion of the retina, or macula, causes loss of vision in the center of the visual field. This degeneration is due to progressive loss of the retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells, which lie at the back of the retina and feed and maintain the photoreceptors.

The approach, which Neurotech and the Institute of Ophthalmology expect to put into clinical trials in 2000, involves reconstituting the retinal pigment epithelial cell layer by injecting genetically modified RPE cells at the back of the retina. This has been successful in a rat model of ARMD.

The two partners have developed patented methods for the genetic modification of the cells which ensure the injected cells are integrated into the cell layer and are able to fulfill their role of maintaining the photoreceptors.

Scientists at the Institute of Ophthalmology, which is part of University College London, will undertake the production of the RPE cell lines for transplantation.

Neurotech, which specializes in treatment for central nervous system disorders, was set up in 1996 with backing from four European venture capital funds: CDC Innovation, Atlas Venture, Sofinnova and Banexi Ventures.

The company's core technology is based on genetically modified cellular vectors derived from immortalized central nervous system cell lines. It has started preclinical development of the first modified cell line, designed to treat brain tumors, and intends to apply the technology to stroke and neurodegenerative disorders.