CRISPR trail­blaz­ers Zhang, Liu and Joung join forces to launch Beam with $87M and cut­ting-edge gene-edit­ing tech

Three of the founders be­hind the high pro­file gene-edit­ing com­pa­ny Ed­i­tas are tak­ing their sci­en­tif­ic prowess to a new ven­ture, launch­ing a start­up this week that ex­pands on the pi­o­neer­ing CRISPR tech the en­tire space is built on.

The new com­pa­ny — called Beam Ther­a­peu­tics — is step­ping out Mon­day with $87 mil­lion in launch mon­ey. In­vestors are back­ing true trail­blaz­ers in gene edit­ing, as Beam’s sci­en­tif­ic founders in­clude David Liu, now-se­r­i­al en­tre­pre­neur Feng Zhang, and J Kei­th Joung. All three are sci­en­tif­ic founders of Ed­i­tas, the CRISPR com­pa­ny launched in 2013 that now gar­ners a $1.7 bil­lion mar­ket cap.

Beam is tak­ing a to­tal­ly new ap­proach to gene edit­ing, hop­ing to tweak base pairs with­out ac­tu­al­ly cut­ting the strand of DNA or RNA. If CRISPR can be com­pared to scis­sors, then Beam’s base edit­ing tech is more like a pen­cil, Liu tells me, eras­ing a “bad” base and writ­ing in a good one.

The im­pe­tus for Beam’s launch was Liu’s re­search at Har­vard, which is now li­censed to the Cam­bridge start­up. The li­cense cov­ers two base edit­ing plat­forms: a C base ed­i­tor and an A base ed­i­tor. The C base one fea­tures Cas9 linked to a cy­ti­dine deam­i­nase to make C-to-T or G-to-A ed­its. The A base ed­i­tor has Cas9 linked to “an evolved form of adeno­sine deam­i­nase,” which can make A-to-G or T-to-C ed­its.

Liu’s DNA base edit­ing tech is just part of Beam’s pack­age, though. Zhang, the guy who just months ago helped launched a dif­fer­ent gene edit­ing start­up (Ar­bor), has joined forces with Liu, con­tribut­ing RNA base edit­ing tech­nol­o­gy from his lab that fea­tures Cas13 linked to an adeno­sine deam­i­nase that can ed­it A-to-G in RNA tran­scripts.

On top of li­cens­es to Liu and Zhang’s tech, Beam al­so has patents from Ed­i­tas. Beam’s CEO John Evans tells me the deal gives the start­up ex­clu­sive rights to IP li­censed to Ed­i­tas by Har­vard, Broad, and Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal, along with cer­tain Ed­i­tas tech­nol­o­gy. As part of that deal, Beam has an ex­clu­sive sub­li­cense to base edit­ing patents out of Liu’s lab and patents by MGH for CRISPR tech­nol­o­gy de­vel­oped in Joung’s lab.

Beam’s ap­proach to gene edit­ing is quite com­pelling for a num­ber of rea­sons. First, slic­ing DNA is a per­ma­nent change, and that isn’t al­ways a good idea.

“There are some states of dis­ease that don’t last a life­time, but are tran­sient,” Liu said. “For those cas­es, you may not want to ad­dress the dis­ease by mak­ing a per­ma­nent change to the DNA of cells.”

“Eras­ing and writ­ing in” ed­its with­out clip­ping could be in­cred­i­bly use­ful in these cas­es.  Liu said edit­ing mu­ta­tions in the nu­cle­obas­es of DNA and RNA has the po­ten­tial to “re­verse a large frac­tion — per­haps the ma­jor­i­ty — of point mu­ta­tions as­so­ci­at­ed with dis­ease.”

But what are the odds that it will work? Liu said he’s hap­py with ear­ly in­di­ca­tions. Af­ter first pub­lish­ing work on these base ed­i­tors back in 2016, dozens of re­searchers have tried their hand at the tech­nol­o­gy and saw suc­cess in bac­te­ria, fun­gi, in­sects, mice, and even hu­man em­bryos.

Beam wants to stay qui­et on which dis­eases its first tar­gets will tack­le but did men­tion that the com­pa­ny is ac­tive­ly work­ing on 10-15 tar­gets and is “en­cour­aged by ear­ly re­sults.” This Se­ries A fund­ing, which was led by F-Prime Cap­i­tal Part­ners and ARCH, should take the com­pa­ny “mul­ti­ple years,” Evans said.

“The length of that run­way gives us con­fi­dence that we can push for­ward quick­ly with lead pro­grams, but al­so take time to go deep on the sci­ence and build a broad pipeline in par­al­lel,” Evans said.

Evans has joined Beam from ARCH, where he was a part­ner. Al­though VCs of­ten sit in as tem­po­rary CEOs while a start­up hunts for a more per­ma­nent can­di­date, Evans said he’s in for the long haul at Beam. While still af­fil­i­at­ed with ARCH, Evans is join­ing Beam full time.

“At Agios, I saw the pow­er of pre­ci­sion med­i­cine to di­rect­ly cor­rect mu­ta­tions in leukemia,” Evans said. “That was a pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence for me, and I want to do that again. With base edit­ing, I see a re­al po­ten­tial to do it again and again.”

Beam has plans to set up an of­fice in the heart of Cam­bridge’s Cen­tral Square neigh­bor­hood. It em­ploys 15 peo­ple to­day, and plans on hir­ing “sev­er­al more” in the near fu­ture.


Top Im­age: Feng Zhang, David Liu and J Kei­th Joung. BEAM THER­A­PEU­TICS

Un­lock­ing ESG strate­gies for growth with Gilead Sci­ences

RBC Capital Markets explores what is material in ESG for biopharma companies with the ESG leads at Gilead Sciences. Gilead has long focused on sustainability but recognized a more robust framework was needed. Based on a materiality assessment, Gilead’s ESG strategy today focuses first on drug access and pricing, while also addressing D&I and climate change. Find out why Gilead’s board is “acutely aware” of the contribution that ESG makes to firm’s overall success.

What con­tro­ver­sy? Eli Lil­ly plots Alzheimer's BLA fil­ing lat­er this year as FDA taps more an­ti-amy­loid drugs as break­throughs

The FDA is keeping the good news coming for Alzheimer’s drug developers. And Eli Lilly is taking them up on it.

Amid continued controversy around whether Biogen’s new flagship drug, Aduhelm, should have been approved at all — and swelling, heated debates surrounding its $56,000 price tag — the agency had no issue handing them and their Japanese partner Eisai a breakthrough therapy designation for a second anti-amyloid beta antibody, lecanemab, late Wednesday.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 110,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Hervé Hoppenot, Incyte CEO (Jeff Rumans)

ODAC echoes FDA con­cern over In­cyte PD-1, as Paz­dur sig­nals broad­er shift for ac­cel­er­at­ed ap­proval

After the FDA lambasted their PD-1 ahead of an adcomm earlier this week, Incyte ran into new trouble Thursday as ODAC panelists voted against an accelerated OK by a wide margin.

Members of the Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee recommended with a 13-4 vote to defer a regulatory decision on Incyte’s retifanlimab until after more data can be collected from a placebo-controlled trial. The PD-1 therapy is due for a PDUFA date in late July after receiving priority review earlier this year.

James Peyer, Cambrian

Can a cell ther­a­py treat mus­cu­lar dy­s­tro­phy? A Ger­man bil­lion­aire's an­ti-ag­ing start­up is try­ing to find out

Gene therapy companies have faced huge hurdles trying to deliver healthy genes into muscular dystrophy patients’ muscle cells, so here’s an idea: Why don’t we just replace the muscle cells themselves?

Over the last two years, Vita Therapeutics has been exploring that possibility, building on early stem cell work from Johns Hopkins professor Peter Andersen. And on Tuesday they announced a $32 million Series A to begin to move their first therapy into the clinic, where they hope it will help rebuild muscle in patients with a type of dystrophy that afflicts the arms and legs.

From left: Rajul Jain, Stefan Vitorovic, Arjun Goyal, Arie Belldegrun, Jean-Philippe (JP) Kouakou-Zebouah, Helen Kim

Arie Bellde­grun's Vi­da Ven­tures goes back to the well with $825M mega­fund and its eyes set on more in­no­v­a­tive meds

Among the list of bright names in biopharma, few shine brighter than Kite founder and serial entrepreneur Arie Belldegrun, who has rattled off a remarkable run of success in recent years. Now, a Belldegrun investment team is locking up a massive third fund to keep chasing the cutting edge in therapeutics.

Vida Ventures closed its third investment fund at a whopping $825 million — its largest yet — as the ever-expanding VC firm hits 30 companies in its portfolio developing new routes to hard-to-treat diseases, the company said Thursday.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 110,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

New FDA doc­u­ments show in­ter­nal dis­sent on Aduhelm ap­proval

In a lengthy review document and a pair of memos from top officials, the FDA released on Tuesday night its most detailed argument yet for approving Biogen’s intensely controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab.

The documents amount to an agency attempt to quench the firestorm their decision kindled, as outside advisors members resigned and experts warned that an unproven drug now could stretch Medicare’s budget to a breaking point. Ultimately, the documents show how CDER director Patrizia Cavazzoni and Office of New Drugs director Peter Stein both concurred with FDA neuroscience head Billy Dunn on the accelerated approval while the staff at FDA’s Office of Biostatistics did not think an approval was warranted.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 110,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Karen Flynn, Catalent

Q&A: When the pan­dem­ic struck, Catal­en­t's CCO had just joined the team

Karen Flynn came aboard Catalent’s team just in time.

The company was going through a surge of changes, and she had been brought over from her role as CCO of West Pharmaceutical Services to serve in the same capacity for the New Jersey-based CDMO. Then a few months later, the pandemic was in full-force.

Since then, Catalent’s been in hyper-expansion mode. In early May, it acquired Promethera’s Hepatic Cell Therapy Support SA subsidiary and its 32,40-square-foot facility in Gosselies, Belgium. Prior to that, the company acquired Belgian CDMO Delphi Genetics, wrapped up the expansion of an already-existing site in Madison, WI and added an ultra-low temperature freezer partner in Sterling. As Emergent has botched millions of doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, the company has swooped in to move that production to its Maryland plant as well.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 110,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Richard Pazdur (vis AACR)

FDA en­cour­ages in­clud­ing in­cur­able can­cer pa­tients in tri­als, re­gard­less of pri­or ther­a­pies

The FDA on Thursday called to include those with incurable cancers (when there is no potential for cure or for prolonged/near normal survival) in appropriate clinical trials, regardless of whether they have received existing alternative treatments.

Historically, many cancer clinical trials have required that participating patients previously received multiple therapies, according to Richard Pazdur, director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence.

On heels of Aduhelm ap­proval, Bris­tol My­ers jumps back in­to Alzheimer's race

Bristol Myers Squibb last put major resources behind an Alzheimer’s drug nearly a decade ago, when their own attempt at targeting amyloid flamed out in mid-stage studies. They invented another molecule, a Tau-targeted antibody, but jettisoned it to Biogen in 2017 as they dropped out of neuroscience altogether.

But on Thursday, the New York pharma announced they were getting back in the game. Bristol Myers exercised an $80 million option to bring a tau-targeted antibody from Prothena into a Phase I study. The opt-in, which Bristol Myers triggered ahead of analyst expectations, opens the door for another $1.7 billion in milestones down the road.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 110,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.