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Hot to touch

5 January 2016 By Robert Cyran

Editas Medicine is putting gene-editing hype to a financial test. These new disease-fighting methods already have captured the imagination of the scientific community. A planned initial public offering by Editas, which is backed by Google Ventures, Bill Gates and others, will measure whether others are similarly enthralled.

The firm was only founded in 2013. Even so, there’s good reason to suspect the technology on which it’s founded is apt to have a big impact on medicine. Editas uses CRISPR-Cas9, which can find and fix genetic errors. That could open the door to curing many diseases that can’t be treated today.

A rare form of inherited blindness is the first target for Editas. A few hundred Americans would qualify, but another gene therapy priced last year at more than $1 million a patient. The importance is more in proof that the technique works. Multiply the price tag across thousands of maladies, many of which are far more prevalent, and it’s easy to understand the excitement, even if a payoff is a decade away.

Reality is bound to be messy, though. Antisense, RNA interference, genomics and other buzzwords were once just as hot before they eventually faded. What looks promising in the lab can prove disappointing in people. It’s often mind-bendingly hard to deliver enough drug to the right place without triggering side effects. Editas may face such problems, as it’s relying on an engineered virus to edit genes in the eye. Other companies have struggled to get viruses to work therapeutically.

Editas faces other significant challenges, too. Patents surrounding CRISPR are notoriously contentious. Multiple researchers claim ownership, meaning Editas may have to pay royalties to other firms and institutions. Moreover, the field is advancing at a breakneck pace. One of the firm’s founders, for example, recently announced the discovery of a protein that may be a better way to edit genes. Editas doesn’t yet have rights to use it.

As the first of likely many IPOs in the gene-editing space, Editas may offer a possibly inexpensive option on the future. If nothing else, it’ll be an early measure of investors’ DNA.

 

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