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

Hal Barron, GSK

Break­ing the death spi­ral: Hal Bar­ron talks about trans­form­ing the mori­bund R&D cul­ture at GSK in a crit­i­cal year for the late-stage pipeline

Just ahead of GlaxoSmithKline’s Q2 update on Wednesday, science chief Hal Barron is making the rounds to talk up the pharma giant’s late-stage strategy as the top execs continue to woo back a deeply skeptical investor group while pushing through a whole new R&D culture.

And that’s not easy, Barron is quick to note. He told the Financial Times:

I think that culture, to some extent, is as hard, in fact even harder, than doing the science.

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Some Big Phar­mas stepped up their game on da­ta trans­paren­cy — but which flunked the test?

The nonprofit Bioethics International has come out with their latest scorecard on data transparency among the big biopharmas in the industry — flagging a few standouts while spotlighting some laggards who are continuing to underperform.

Now in its third year, the nonprofit created a new set of standards with Yale School of Medicine and Stanford Law School to evaluate the track record on trial registration, results reporting, publication and data-sharing practice.

Busy Gilead crew throws strug­gling biotech a life­line, with some cash up­front and hun­dreds of mil­lions in biobucks for HIV deal

Durect $DRRX got a badly needed shot in the arm Monday morning as Gilead’s busy BD team lined up access to its extended-release platform tech for HIV and hepatitis B.

Gilead, a leader in the HIV sector, is paying a modest $25 million in cash for the right to jump on the platform at Durect, which has been using its technology to come up with an extended-release version of bupivacaine. The FDA rejected that in 2014, but Durect has been working on a comeback.

In­tec blitzed by PhI­II flop as lead pro­gram fails to beat Mer­ck­'s stan­dard com­bo for Parkin­son’s

Intec Pharma’s $NTEC lead drug slammed into a brick wall Monday morning. The small-cap Israeli biotech reported that its lead program — coming off a platform designed to produce a safer, more effective oral drug for Parkinson’s — failed the Phase III at the primary endpoint.

Researchers at Intec, which has already seen its share price collapse over the past few months, says that its Accordion Pill-Carbidopa/Levodopa failed to prove superior to Sinemet in reducing daily ‘off’ time. 

Cel­gene racks up third Ote­zla ap­proval, heat­ing up talks about who Bris­tol-My­ers will sell to

Whoever is taking Otezla off Bristol-Myers Squibb’s hands will have one more revenue stream to boast.

The drug — a rising star in Celgene’s pipeline that generated global sales of $1.6 billion last year — is now OK’d to treat oral ulcers associated with Behçet’s disease, a common symptom for a rare inflammatory disorder. This marks the third FDA approval for the PDE4 inhibitor since 2014, when it was greenlighted for plaque psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.

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Francesco De Rubertis

Medicxi is rolling out its biggest fund ever to back Eu­rope's top 'sci­en­tists with strange ideas'

Francesco De Rubertis built Medicxi to be the kind of biotech venture player he would have liked to have known back when he was a full time scientist.

“When I was a scientist 20 years ago I would have loved Medicxi,’ the co-founder tells me. It’s the kind of place run by and for investigators, what the Medicxi partner calls “scientists with strange ideas — a platform for the drug hunter and scientific entrepreneur. That’s what I wanted when I was a scientist.”

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Af­ter a decade, Vi­iV CSO John Pot­tage says it's time to step down — and he's hand­ing the job to long­time col­league Kim Smith

ViiV Healthcare has always been something unique in the global drug industry.

Owned by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer — with GSK in the lead as majority owner — it was created 10 years ago in a time of deep turmoil for the field as something independent of the pharma giants, but with access to lots of infrastructural support on demand. While R&D at the mother ship inside GSK was souring, a razor-focused ViiV provided a rare bright spot, challenging Gilead on a lucrative front in delivering new combinations that require fewer therapies with a more easily tolerated regimen.

They kept a massive number of people alive who would otherwise have been facing a death sentence. And they made money.

And throughout, John Pottage has been the chief scientific and chief medical officer.

Until now.

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Vlad Coric (Biohaven)

In an­oth­er dis­ap­point­ment for in­vestors, FDA slaps down Bio­haven’s re­vised ver­sion of an old ALS drug

Biohaven is at risk of making a habit of disappointing its investors.

Late Friday the biotech $BHVN reported that the FDA had rejected its application for riluzole, an old drug that they had made over into a sublingual formulation that dissolves under the tongue. According to Biohaven, the FDA had a problem with the active ingredient used in a bioequivalence study back in 2017, which they got from the Canadian drugmaker Apotex.

Apotex, though, has been a disaster ground. The manufacturer voluntarily yanked the ANDAs on 31 drugs — in late 2017 — after the FDA came across serious manufacturing deficiencies at their plants in India. A few days ago, the FDA made it official.

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Chas­ing Roche's ag­ing block­buster fran­chise, Am­gen/Al­ler­gan roll out Avastin, Her­ceptin knock­offs at dis­count

Let the long battle for biosimilars in the cancer space begin.

Amgen has launched its Avastin and Herceptin copycats — licensed from the predecessors of Allergan — almost two years after the FDA had stamped its approval on Mvasi (bevacizumab-awwb) and three months after the Kanjinti OK (trastuzumab-anns). While the biotech had been fielding biosimilars in Europe, this marks their first foray in the US — and the first oncology biosimilars in the country.