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

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.