CRISPR Therapeutics laid off employees on heels of positive FDA AdComm: sources

CRISPR Therapeutics laid off a number of employees a week after FDA advisers all but greenlighted the company’s Vertex-partnered, CRISPR-edited sickle cell therapy, sources told Fierce Biotech. 

Three sources familiar with the decision said the layoffs were communicated Nov. 7, a week after the Oct. 31 advisory meeting. Two of the sources told Fierce Biotech that about 50 employees were let go, making up about 10% of the company. CRISPR reported having 458 full-time employees as of the end of 2022. A spokesperson for CRISPR did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The downsizing underscores just how bleak the biotech market has been for staffers, with CRISPR cutting costs even while it sits on the precipice of a major milestone.

Vertex and CRISPR are poised to have the first approved gene editing therapy that uses Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR tech, with the FDA set to decide on exa-cel’s use in patients with sickle cell by Dec. 8. The treatment was approved by U.K. regulators last week

FDA advisers appeared assuaged by the data presented by CRISPR and Vertex at the advisory meeting regarding the potential of exa-cel to spur off-target edits. The panel of experts had no grave concerns, and the committee chair described the companies as using a "robust approach" to identify the off-target potential. 

Vertex Chief Operating Officer Stuart Arbuckle called the treatment a “multibillion-dollar” opportunity on the company’s latest earnings call. Exa-cel has also been developed as a treatment for beta thalassemia, though regulators will decide the fate of that indication in March 2024. 

CRISPR execs had previously teased that the biotech was on the partnership prowl for some of the assets in its pipeline. Alex Harding, M.D., head of business development, told Fierce Biotech in October that CRISPR’s in vivo editing and immuno-oncology assets were most ripe for collaboration opportunities. The companies that had been in communication with CRISPR about partnering on the cell therapy work expressed interest beyond just blood disorders, Harding said.

Still, CRISPR sits on an enviable pile of cash for a clinical-stage biotech without an approved product. The company reported $1.74 billion in cash and equivalents as of the end of the third quarter, reflecting a relatively stable burn rate given that the company entered the year with $1.87 billion in cash. R&D expenses were down 22% in the third quarter of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022, which CRISPR attributed to “reduced variable external research and manufacturing costs.”

The company’s third-quarter earnings were reported the day before layoffs were communicated to staff. 

Annalee Armstrong contributed reporting to this story.