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CRISPR Race Heats Up As Gates, Crossovers Put $120M Into Editas

Xconomy Boston — 

To this point, the technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 has been a science project, a research tool with enormous potential—and significant questions to answer—on which venture capitalists have placed bets by forming a group of startups. The jackpot: CRISPR-Cas9, a method of performing precise genetic surgery, might yield treatments for a wide array of previously intractable diseases.

We’re still a long way from anybody claiming that prize, though; no CRISPR-Cas9 therapy has ever been tested in a human being, and a whole lot could go wrong when that happens. Emerging technologies, after all, go through their ups and downs. But today some of the biggest names on Wall Street and elsewhere are showing that they like the odds by handing the largest round of funding yet to a CRISPR-Cas9 startup.

Cambridge-based Editas Medicine is announcing a $120 million Series B round led by Bill Gates’s chief advisor for science and technology, Boris Nikolic. The list of financiers teaming with Nikolic reads like a rolodex of so-called crossover investors, who invest in both public and private entities, and corporate venture arms. Among them: Deerfield Management, Viking Global Investors, Fidelity Management & Research, T. Rowe Price Associates, Google Ventures, Jennison Associates, Khosla Ventures, EcoR1 Capital, Casdin Capital, Omega Funds, Cowen Private Investments, and Alexandria Venture Investments. Editas’ founding VC backers—Flagship Ventures, Polaris Partners, and Third Rock Ventures—also pitched in, as did Partners Innovation Fund.

Nikolic, who is joining Editas’ board, made the investment through what’s been called “bng0,” a new U.S.-based investment company backed by “large family offices with a global presence and long-term investment horizon” and formed specifically to invest in Editas. CEO Katrine Bosley confirmed that Gates is one of the individuals investing in Editas alongside Nikolic.

To be clear, while this is a significant round, it’s not even close to the largest financing round for a biotech startup. During the latest boom, we’ve seen messenger RNA drug developer Moderna Therapeutics haul in a record $450 million. And the now-public cancer immunotherapy company Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO)—which Editas recently partnered with—got $310 million last year before taking itself public.

But the round is still the largest financial investment made yet in a CRISPR-Cas9 startup, adding to the quickly gathering momentum of the field’s fledgling companies. Intellia Therapeutics and CRISPR Therapeutics (both of which have operations in Cambridge) were both formed after Editas, and both have made strides as well: Intellia raised a $15 million Series A last year and then cut a broad collaboration with Novartis in January. CRISPR hauled in $64 million in April in a round that was led by Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) and the venture arm of GlaxoSmithKline. Caribou Biosciences of Berkeley, CA, too, is part of the fray, having recently raised an $11 million Series A of its own.

Editas has become the first of the group not only to attract crossover backers, but to begin discussing the diseases that its targeting. Its first program, Bosley says, is a potential treatment for a form of leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a genetically driven blindness. It’s a different form of the LCA than the gene therapy company Spark Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ONCE) is targeting; Bosley says the one Editas is going after can’t be solved by gene therapy.

Beyond that, and Editas’s ongoing immuno-oncology work with Juno, Editas has done some very early work in Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is exploring ways to repair a mutant hemoglobin gene—something that could have an impact in a range of bleeding disorders. That doesn’t mean this is where Editas will ultimately focus—Bosley notes, for instance, that there are big technical challenges of producing an effective CRISPR-Cas9 therapy for Duchenne—but it’s a glimpse into the company’s thinking.

Bosley won’t estimate how long it’ll be before the first Editas therapy begins human testing, noting that the company is in the midst of preclinical work, testing its technology in patient cells. “We have a little bit more work to do before we can really be explicit about a specific timeline,” she says.

Does that mean a few years? “I don’t think it’ll take that long,” she says. “We’ll move sooner than that if we have a construct that’s good enough.”

For those new to the story, CRISPR-Cas9 is a two-part system derived from a defense mechanism that bacteria use to fend off viruses. Think of it as a pair of molecular scissors (an enzyme called CRISPR-associated protein 9, or Cas9) being carried into a cell’s nucleus by a strand of RNA that serves as a guide (clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, aka CRISPR). Once there, the scissors may be able to snip out a defective gene, and perhaps replace it with a new, functioning one. In the case of Editas’s LCA program, for instance, Bosley says the company aims to make two specific cuts in two different DNA sites to eliminate the genetic mutation causing the disease.

This isn’t the first gene editing technique to emerge; Sangamo Biosciences (NASDAQ: SGMO) and its zinc finger nuclease platform have the most advanced gene editing candidate, a potential therapy for HIV in Phase 2 testing. But CRISPR-Cas9 has … Next Page »

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