Crispr’s Nobel prize and IPOs both happened at lightning speed

Scientists and entrepreneurs celebrating success.
Scientists and entrepreneurs celebrating success.
Image: Reuters/Eloy Alonso
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On the morning of Oct. 7, microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and biochemist Jennifer Doudna received phone calls from the secretive Nobel committee to alert them that they had made history: The scientists would share the Nobel prize in chemistry for their work discovering the system of gene editing known as Crispr-Cas9.

Any Nobel is notable—but this one stands out in two major ways. It’s the first science Nobel ever awarded to two women. And it was given a mere eight years after the discovery was published, while most prizes go to decades-old research.

That shouldn’t be so surprising: Crispr hasn’t just moved at warp speed by science’s standards, but by the biotech industry’s. Since meeting at a conference and a fortuitous walk on the beach to swap ideas, Charpentier and Doudna have been busy: In addition to running labs at the Max Plank Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively, the two scientists have co-founded six companies between them, each focusing on various aspects of gene editing.

Of those companies, three—Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, and Crispr Therapeutics—went public in 2016, just four years after Crispr-Cas9 was discovered. Mammoth Biosciences, which Doudna co-founded, received $45 million in series B investments earlier this year. Another company she co-founded, called Scribe Therapeutics, received an initial $20 million investment yesterday, Oct. 6. ERS Genomics, an intellectual property company that Charpentier co-founded in 2014, works to license Crispr-Cas9 technologies to other companies.

The scale of these investments and the speed of those IPOs is due to the potential value of Crispr’s gene-editing applications. The rights to apply the technology to human medical treatments are a golden goose that have been subject to a years-long patent dispute. Biochemist Feng Zhang and geneticist George Church, who are at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, respectively, showed the Crispr could be used in the kind of complex cells that build humans a few months after Doudna and Charpentier invented the technology more broadly.

That fight may not be over quite yet, but just last month, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Doudna and Charpentier were the true inventors of the component of Crispr that guides the DNA-snipping enzyme to the region of a scientists’ choice.

Despite the patent debate, gene editing applications using Crispr-Cas9 have steamrolled ahead. Zhang has cofounded his own biotech companies, one of which is public. Church has co-founded dozens of companies, a handful of which are involved in genetic engineering using Crispr.

That doesn’t mean human treatments are a sure thing. The gene-editing technique has been applied to clinical research tackling forms of muscular dystrophy, blood diseases, and cystic fibrosis—but the results are still trickling in. So far, the world has yet to see an approved human treatment based on Crispr.