Monday, December 16, 2013

2013 Financing of the Year Nominee: Editas

It's time for the IN VIVO Blog's Sixth Annual Deal of the Year! competition. This year we're once again presenting awards in three categories to highlight the most interesting and creative deal making solutions of the year. The categories are: M&A of the Year, Alliance of the Year, and Financing of the Year. We'll supply the nominations (about a half dozen in each category throughout over the next week or so) and you, the voting public, will decide the winners (by voting early and often, commencing once we've announced all the nominees). Strap yourselves in, it's The Race for the Roger™.

One of the financings of the year, in our humble opinion, comes from three venture firms you should all know well: Polaris Venture Partners, Third Rock Ventures and Flagship Ventures. The trio "locked arms," in the words of Polaris principal Kevin Bitterman, to commit $43 million to Editas Medicine. We've nominated this deal for two reasons.

First, Editas -- of which Bitterman is serving as interim president -- is the first startup to declare its intent to turn one of the hottest research tools around into a new wave of therapeutics. One might call it gene therapy, version 2.0: the technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 allows researchers working with cells or model organisms to delete genes or replace them with new ones, but in ways considered more precise than other gene-editing systems currently in use.
Got genes?
The answer to whether the CRISPR/Cas9 modification system can become a basis for pharmaceutical products is years away. It is, relative to most venture-funded efforts, a brand-new field. Most of the critical developments have been described in academic papers only in the last twelve months, and many more will undoubtedly come in the next twelve.

The second reason we've spotlighted this deal is the syndicate. The VC trio involved more often than not will work in stealth on new potential breakthrough technologies on their own, as our START-UP colleagues detailed earlier this year here and here. In the past year, for example, Flagship has done solo work in launching a microbiome company (Seres Health), an epigenetics company (Syros Pharmaceuticals), a patient-as-protein-factory firm (Moderna Therapeutics, also to be nominated in this year's contest), and a nutritional supplement and drug maker (Pronutria).

With advances in CRISPR technology coming quickly from several academic sources, however, the VCs felt it was better to join forces. “Once a decade, it makes more sense to pool the expertise and resources of investors and the technology and expertise of the academic founders instead of creating three, four, or five different companies positioned against each other,” Bitterman told our Pink Sheet Daily colleagues when the company launched. (Also joining the syndicate is the Partners Innovation Fund, the venture arm of Boston-based Partners Healthcare.)

How far have they gotten in front of the competition? Check back around this time next year. Other CRISPR/Cas9 start-ups should soon emerge, and a CRISPR tools company in Berkeley, Calif. hopes to land a Series A round early next year to help it move into therapeutics as well as industrial and agricultural applications. The Berkeley company, Caribou Biosciences, lays claim to all the IP from the lab of University of California professor Jennifer Doudna, according to Caribou CEO Rachel Haurwitz. (This, despite Doudna being one of Editas' scientific co-founders.) As we said, the IP race is afoot.

CRISPR stands for “clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It describes a nucleic acid system, first discovered in bacteria by Japanese researchers 25 years ago, that banks bits of foreign viral DNA to serve as an immune-system reminder when the pathogen invades again. Re-infection triggers production of RNA associated with the foreign DNA, which seeks out a match. The RNA doesn’t destroy the invading DNA on its own; the CRISPR RNA (crRNA) brings along an enzyme to make a double-stranded break. Scientists have zeroed in on the nuclease Cas9, or “CRISPR-associated protein 9."

Come to think of it, there's a third reason to nominate Editas. If it succeeds, it will have to improve upon two different strands of biotechnology that have proved extremely frustrating the past decade: gene therapy and RNA-mediated drugs. Therapies based on CRISPR/Cas9 will also be RNA-mediated, which has implications both pro and con. One benefit is that, theoretically, there is less engineering required as a company targets more than one disease. That’s because the “scissors” of Cas9 can cut DNA at any juncture; only the RNA guides need to be changed, a simpler engineering problem.  But the molecules are tough to deliver. Companies have struggled to formulate agents that don’t break down in systemic applications. Bitterman said one of Editas’ “core competencies” will be delivery: “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

In addition to Doudna, Editas’ scientific co-founders are Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and three Harvard researchers, including George Church; Keith Joung, also of Massachusetts General Hospital; and David Liu, also of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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