As gene edit­ing ex­plodes, a new re­port from Gold­man says Chi­nese groups are seiz­ing the lead on CRISPR and CAR-T stud­ies

Con­trary to what you might be­lieve, bio­phar­ma com­pa­nies in the US are not the lead­ers in clin­i­cal tri­als us­ing gene edit­ing tech. While a slate of US/Eu­ro­pean pi­o­neers have been lin­ing up their first hu­man tri­als, in­ves­ti­ga­tors in Chi­na are al­ready well ahead in test­ing CRISPR-edit­ed cells in hu­mans, ac­cord­ing to a deep dive on gene ther­a­pies from Gold­man Sachs an­a­lyst Salveen Richter.

“As of the end of Feb­ru­ary 2018,” Richter and her team re­port­ed, “there were nine reg­is­tered clin­i­cal stud­ies test­ing CRISPR-edit­ed cells to treat var­i­ous can­cers and HIV in­fec­tion in Chi­na, vs. on­ly one study in the U.S. All of the stud­ies were ini­ti­at­ed / spon­sored by top-tier pub­lic hos­pi­tals across Chi­na, and >80 pa­tients were re­port­ed as be­ing treat­ed by these in­ves­ti­ga­tion­al genome med­i­cines.”

Last year alone, Richter adds, the Na­tion­al Nat­ur­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion of Chi­na pro­vid­ed fund­ing for more than 90 CRISPR projects — more than 270 over the last 4 years. With no reg­u­la­tions on these gene edit­ing projects, hos­pi­tals in Chi­na in par­tic­u­lar have been quick to ac­cel­er­ate their CRISPR work, a sit­u­a­tion that might change soon if Chi­na’s main drug agency steps in and ap­plies the brakes, as Gold­man ex­pects will hap­pen.

And Chi­nese in­ves­ti­ga­tors are al­ready ri­val­ing the US in the to­tal num­ber of CAR-T stud­ies that are be­ing done. As of Feb­ru­ary, Gold­man Sachs count­ed 153 CAR-T tri­als in Chi­na, com­pared to 164 in the US, 73 in Eu­rope and 56 in all of the rest of the world com­bined.

The one com­pa­ny fur­thest out in front is Leg­end Biotech­nol­o­gy, which J&J paid $350 mil­lion to part­ner with as it en­tered the glob­al race to de­vel­op new ther­a­pies in the wake of his­toric ap­provals for Kym­ri­ah (No­var­tis) and Yescar­ta (Gilead/Kite). And if these com­pa­nies and tri­als hit pay-dirt da­ta, as they promise to, Gold­man be­lieves that Chi­na will reap a con­sid­er­able ben­e­fit by sell­ing these ther­a­pies at a much low­er rate than the pi­o­neers on the mar­ket, spurring a sig­nif­i­cant amount of med­ical tourism.

What is this kind of mar­ket worth for the ri­vals look­ing to com­pete in it?

That de­pends on the sup­ply of pa­tients.

If your new genome med­i­cine ei­ther promis­es to cure a dis­ease or de­lay any fur­ther ther­a­py for a lengthy pe­ri­od of time, notes the Gold­man re­port, then your mar­ket could play out quick­ly as you race through the pa­tient pool that is avail­able. That’s what Gilead ex­pe­ri­enced when it came up with a pain­less cure for he­pati­tis C.

Not on­ly did the drugs from Gilead shrink the pool, Gold­man re­ports in a cold analy­sis of the num­bers, they al­so re­duced the num­ber of car­ri­ers present to keep spread­ing the dis­ease, fur­ther shrink­ing the mar­ket. From the re­port:

The po­ten­tial to de­liv­er “one shot cures” is one of the most at­trac­tive as­pects of gene ther­a­py, ge­net­i­cal­ly-en­gi­neered cell ther­a­py and gene edit­ing. How­ev­er, such treat­ments of­fer a very dif­fer­ent out­look with re­gard to re­cur­ring rev­enue ver­sus chron­ic ther­a­pies, par­tic­u­lar­ly in cer­tain dis­eases where it is pos­si­ble to cure a large pro­por­tion of the preva­lent pa­tient pool (or at least pre­vent an ad­di­tion­al dose from be­ing re­quired for an ex­tend­ed pe­ri­od). While this propo­si­tion car­ries tremen­dous val­ue for pa­tients and so­ci­ety, it could rep­re­sent a chal­lenge for genome med­i­cine de­vel­op­ers look­ing for sus­tained cash flow. Gilead is a case in point, where the suc­cess of its he­pati­tis C fran­chise has grad­u­al­ly ex­haust­ed the avail­able pool of treat­able pa­tients. 

The most lu­cra­tive dis­eases for these new cu­ra­tive ther­a­pies, Richter adds, would be big fields like he­mo­phil­ia or ar­eas where there’s a large sup­ply of new pa­tients each year — like can­cer. Spinal mus­cu­lar at­ro­phy, which af­flicts a stan­dard set of in­fants each year, is al­so vi­able. 

That may not be the kind of math that bio­phar­ma ex­ecs like to dis­cuss in pub­lic, but it’s cer­tain­ly the kind of equa­tions they re­view care­ful­ly while de­cid­ing how to spend R&D bud­gets.

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