Genetic Rough Draft: Editas and CRISPR

BY: SHAAN FYE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Editas Medicine, one of many companies hoping to utilize the power of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology, has announced plans to file for a 100 million dollar IPO. The first company of its kind to go public, Editas underscores a broader shift toward a new paradigm for treating disease—one that alters the DNA itself to internally treat afflictions.

The Method

CRISPR is a naturally occurring defense mechanism against viral infections. Within a strand of DNA, CRISPR refers to copied DNA from previous viruses within the cell. By placing these strands into the organism’s DNA, it provides a template from which a Cas (CRISPR-associated protein) can build an RNA strand that replicates the DNA of the virus. From there, these enzymes, loaded with an RNA strand of the virus, can precisely latch onto invaders with the customized weapon. Once attached, the viral DNA is snipped, negating harmful effects.

This mechanism can be altered to edit individual genes in organisms as well. Using custom RNA pieces for the Cas9 protein, snips can be made at any individual location. Once cut, a new, modified DNA piece can be inserted as an attachment back to where the old DNA used to be. An MIT video explains more below:

The Economics

Editas hopes to capture the surrounding buzz of this newly discovered process—barely three years old—to capitalize its future endeavors in gene editing technology. The company, still a year away from the commencement of its first clinical trial, will not have a product on the market for the foreseeable future. The risk is acknowledged in its IPO filing, in which Editas admits, “It will be many years, if ever, before we have a product candidate ready for commercialization.”

The competition Editas faces is fierce. The patent behind the company is currently being disputed between researchers at Berkeley and the Broad Institute. If the patent of the Broad Institute researcher, Feng Zheng, is overturned and awarded to Berkeley, it spells an almost certain doom for Editas, which relies on Zheng’s patent as the basis of its valuation. Other companies, like Crispr Therapeutics, Intellia Therapeutics, and the Berkeley scientist Jennifer Doudna’s Caribou Biosciences, are all competing to essentially offer the same delivery system to patients.

Like other news-capturing industries—medical marijuana, 3d printing, and more—genome editing companies rely on the scientific hype to justify their valuations. With no positive cash flow and nonexistent revenue streams, there is almost no way to justify buying into the IPO. While men like Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla can afford to throw a several million dollars at fledgling companies that may turn out to be revolutionary, the general public is unable to absorb the inherent risk.

This isn’t to say CRISPR as a method of genome editing is a bad idea. A good technology is not necessarily a good investment, something ringing true for Mannkind investors right now. And when the technology hasn’t been demonstrated in humans yet, it is important to be cautious in determining future revenue or market impact. Of course, gene editing offers an entirely new approach to eradicating illness from the inside out, but the individual companies racing to raise new rounds of funding and scheduling IPOs rely on contested patents and brilliant scientists.

Any “edits” on the genetics of this article? Want to talk to Shaan? Leave a comment below or email him at shaan@atlasbusinessjournal.org