CRISPR biotech Intellia promotes R&D head to CEO post

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Intellia's executive shuffle comes after it gained a $108 million IPO last year.

Intellia Therapeutics has named John Leonard, M.D., as its new president and chief as former leader and founder Nessan Bermingham, Ph.D., walks away into a venture capitalist role.

Leonard, an Abbott and AbbVie vet who worked across numerous infectious disease and cancer programs, will become the gene-editing biotech’s new head from New Year’s as Bermingham is “returning to the venture capital industry,” according to a statement from the company.

The company tells me that Leonard "will continue to oversee R&D until his replacement has been named," but did not say which VC firm Bermingham was joining; he has previously worked at Atlas Ventures, the firm that helped launch Intellia with Novartis. 

“After nearly four years of building Intellia and this exceptional team, the company is now poised to begin development of CRISPR/Cas9-based therapies,” explains Bermingham.

“At this stage, Intellia requires a CEO with a track record of successful drug development. John was the first to join me in starting Intellia, and was an ideal partner because of his unmatched R&D expertise and biopharmaceutical leadership experience. As I return to my roots in biotech venture capital, I am confident that Intellia, the science and our employees are in great hands.”

He had been Intellia’s CMO and recently its EVP of R&D. The biotech says it’s promoting an R&D lead: “In recognition of the company’s growth and expanding pipeline, the board of directors and Dr. Bermingham agreed that Dr. Leonard should lead the company as it progresses toward clinical development, given his experience in successfully developing biopharmaceutical products and leading large scientific organizations.”

RELATED: Intellia moves closer to clinic with CRISPR tech

Companies like Intellia, Editas and CRISPR Therapeutics are vying to bring the CRISPR technology into the clinic, potentially generating one-dose therapies that could cure a host of gene-related diseases, although they will not be the first groups to do so.

Last year, Chinese scientists from Sichuan University's West China Hospital made history when they used CRISPR for the first time on an adult with lung cancer, using cells harvested from the patient that had been genetically modified using CRISPR to remove a brake (PD-1) on the immune response to the tumor.

And at the end of April, a second Chinese team from Nanjing University's Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital tested a similar procedure in a patient with head and neck cancer.

The biotech, with a market cap worth just under $800 million, raised an $108 million IPO last year, one of only a few biotechs that managed to get off a public offering in what was a tough window.

One of its in vivo candidates, which targets transthyretin amyloidosis (ATTR), a life-threatening disease caused by misfolded transthyretin proteins that accumulate as amyloid fibrils in multiple organs, is being co-developed with Regeneron.

It’s not the only biotech working on this particular disease however, with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals currently running late-stage trials for its RNAi therapeutic patisiran, in patients with hereditary ATTR amyloidosis with polyneuropathy, and in the last month has kick-started EMA and FDA submissions.

In the ex vivo field, Intellia is working with Novartis on a knockout repair insertion technology using hematopoietic stem cells, with a first IND expected to be submitted in 2018.