Intellia Rewrites pipeline expansion in $200M acquisition of UC Berkeley DNA writing startup

Intellia Therapeutics had an itch for complementary tech last fall when Moderna said it was getting into the gene editing arena. CEO John Leonard, M.D., was mum on whether he'd pick up Stéphane Bancel's call, but he did say the first-in-human gene editing biotech is always interested in looking at targets.

It appears Intellia has scratched the itch in the form of an acquisition that could see the Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech dole out up to $200 million for little-known Rewrite Therapeutics. The deal includes $45 million upfront and an additional $155 million in research and regulatory approval milestones. Additional details were kept under wraps. 

"We don't want to be defined by a particular tool. The goal is to have a toolbox that's unparalleled, that we have a collection of gene editing modalities as well as delivery modalities so we can really expand our therapeutic pipeline," said Laura Sepp-Lorenzino, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of Intellia, in an interview. The executive has known Rewrite cofounder David Schaffer, Ph.D., for a "long time."

The University of California, Berkeley spinout will provide complementary tech to Intellia's CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene editing technologies, the companies said Thursday. Rewrite has a big promise: Its DNA writing can improve on gene editing in non-dividing cell types, which it says is a "key challenge" for some of the existing gene editing biotechs.

Rewrite began in 2016 when co-founders Shakked Halperin, Ph.D., and Schaffer, along with colleagues at the famed university—home to gene editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D.—developed a CRISPR-guided DNA polymerization tech that can change the genome without making double-strand breaks. The biotech was seeded by Civilization Ventures and Prefix Capital. 

RELATED: Not for sale: Intellia isn't interested in a buyout, but CEO Leonard has an eye out for complementary tech

Intellia thinks it can deliver Rewrite's tech using lipid nanoparticle technology and adeno-associated virus vectors.

Intellia has inked deals before—mainly in the form of partnerships with the likes of Regeneron—and has helped seed new companies, including a 10% stake in ocular-focused biotech SparingVision and a new CAR T-cell company

The biotech decided to go the acquisition route this time because Intellia wanted to "go full force," Sepp-Lorenzino said. Collaborations, on the other hand, are limited, she added.  

"It's early like the other technologies in the field, so it's going to take time, but I believe we have the know-how and the enablement that can help us accelerate that path," the CSO said.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:09 p.m. ET, Feb. 3, to include comments from Intellia's chief scientific officer.