Gene Editing: The ever-hotter CRISPR
During the inaugural Cutting Edge session at Cleantech Forum Europe a few months ago, biologist Anna Gilles explained the basics of CRISPR to an audience of energy investors and corporates. This method, re-discovered five years ago and dubbed “the copy-paste of genome editing,” has revolutionized the field and allowed scientists around the world to edit organisms in an easier and cheaper way than was previously possible. The rapid rise of CRISPR-related medical research has been inspiring – as we wrote this post, the first trial on humans was taking place in China. Since the Europe Forum in April, we have also detected signals of CRISPR being applied to agriculture and industrial biotechnology. Here is an update on some of the latest developments in the field.
On the funding front, several announcements have hit the wires since our Forum in April. First, Caribou Biosciences raised a $30 million series B round mid-May. Interestingly, CEO Rachel Haurwitz called out development of applications in agriculture and industrial biotechnology as potential use of funds. The company has also made our Global Cleantech 100 Ones to Watch list this year, a sign that top corporate and venture capital players in our ecosystem are keeping an eye on the field.
The second announcement comes from CRISPR Therapeutics, a competitor with a focus on gene-based medicines for serious diseases. The company went public in early October in an IPO that valued the company around $500 million. However, the listing was less successful than anticipated, raising some $56m instead of the planned $66m.
More recently, Minnesota-based Recombinetics, a company applying genome editing techniques such as CRISPR to develop “precision breeding” methods, raised an $11 million growth equity round.
In early April, the US Department of Agriculture decided that a genetically engineered mushroom developed by Dr. Yinong Yang of Penn State University was not a regulated product. Deleting some genes with CRISPR, Yang was able to extend the shelf life of mushrooms by reducing the production of browning enzymes. In its decision, the USDA explained that the modified mushrooms did not contain foreign DNA such as viruses and bacteria – which would have been necessary with older gene engineering technologies – and as such did not fall under its regulatory purview.
While the mushrooms – and future genetically-engineered agricultural products – may still be regulated by the FDA, this was a landmark decision for CRISPR, and one that will encourage researchers to experiment with it.
As funding and research keeps up, a battle rages over who should reap licensing fees and royalties from the technology. Three researchers, and co-founders in four of the top start-ups in the field (Intellia Therapeutics, CRISPR Therapeutics, Caribou Biosciences, and Editas Medicine), are claiming paternity of the method. In September, a Korean biotech company, ToolGen, joined the fray and was awarded a Korean patent. With such large sums in the air, it’s unlikely that any of the contestants will fold.
The uncertainty over the paternity of the discovery is bound to weigh on the pace of its development. Indeed, entering a licensing deal with one of the researchers is risky, and while large agriculture conglomerates could afford a loss, smaller players and investors will have to be more cautious.
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