Bayer and Baxalta Battle for Gene Editing Domination — With Billions of Dollars at Stake

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Everyone loves a good space race, like the one between SpaceX and Blue Origin. But a new war is waging: the battle for biotech. Specifically, gene editing — it's the hottest thing on the lips of biologists right now. 

For those new to the conversation, we're talking about a technique of going into a genome, finding a bad mutation in the gene and either rendering it inert, turning it into something else or snipping out the strand of DNA to be replaced with a healthy copy. 

Last month, a Grand View Research report predicted treating cancer with the use of genomics would be worth $9.22 billion by 2022. CRISPR/Cas9, a precise and subjectively simple method for gene editing, is the most widely reported technique.

Last week, biotech startup Precision BioSciences signed a $105 million deal with big biopharma company Baxalta to develop therapies for cancer treatment. The immuno-oncology technology involved uses genetically edited chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or engineered immune cells, to hunt down cancer cells or other mutations and kill them without damaging the host.

The collaboration works like any other in the startup-giant world: Baxalta has the money but not the expertise: It doesn't know how to edit with CAR T-cells. Precision BioSciences is on the right track with its Arcus genome editing platform, but doesn't have Big Pharma money. Together, they can afford to build a reliable immuno-oncology medication that can help people around the world who suffer from difficult-to-treat cancers, like leukemia. At least, that's the idea.

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The announcement comes hot on the heels of a now-$335 million deal between aspirin mainstay Bayer AG and gene editing startup CRISPR Therapeutics to create commercial gene therapies to treat congenital heart disease, blindness and blood disorders.

"We are very impressed by the scientific team of CRISPR Therapeutics as they have built the most promising gene-editing technology on the market," Dr. Axel Bouchon, head of the Bayer LifeScience Center, said in a press release. "This is perfectly suited to fully leverage Bayer's expertise in protein engineering and knowledge in the targeted disease areas of this [joint venture]."

While the technologies CRISPR Therapeutics and Precision Bio use are different — CRISPR Therapeutics uses CRISPR/Cas9, Precision Bio has a proprietary method called Arcus that deploys what the company calls an "ARC Nuclease" — the modus operandi is the same: save the world by editing its DNA.

Source: San Jose Mercury News/Getty Images
Source: San Jose Mercury News/Getty Images

These two aren't even the only players. There's also Editas Medicine, a CRISPR/Cas9-utilizing biotech company that just went public with huge success. Intellia Therapeutics, which aims to treat genetic diseases with CRISPR/Cas9 and CAR T-cells, among others. And there's Cellectis, the French biopharma company that used TALEN and CAR T-cells to successfully treat leukemia in an infant last year. Those aren't all of them, but you get the idea.

At this point, we're right on the cusp of huge innovations in medicine, and it's silly to think gene editing won't play a role in how we diagnose and treat disease. What's going to be interesting is, now that major pharmaceutical companies realize there's money, innovation and monster kudos to be earned in pioneering gene therapies, innovations could start rolling in on a regular basis, chugging through years of medical innovation on a train made of money. This is, in the most earnest sense, the future of health.