Novartis adopts a CRISPR-Cas9 partner and jumps into the hot new R&D field

Just weeks after Novartis ($NVS) and Atlas Venture announced the launch of an upstart player in the fast-emerging field of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, the pharma giant has stepped back up to formally hammer out a partnership development deal and throw its enormous resources behind the biotech.

As is often the case, Novartis wasn't offering any numbers about today's partnership. But it did spell out its interest in using the work at Intellia Therapeutics on chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-Ts) and hematopoetic stem cells with a broad interest in developing gene therapies. Novartis--which has an annual R&D budget close to $10 billion--is known to move fast when it gets excited about new technology. The Big Pharma has essentially offered the University of Pennsylvania a blank check for its development efforts in CAR-T, in which T cells are extracted from patients and then engineered into weapons specifically targeting cancer cells.

Today all it would say is that it is handing over an upfront payment, bumped up its equity stake in the company, will pay part of the biotech's R&D costs and hammered out a deal over the ownership of the work they do on new therapies. In a separate but related development, Novartis inked a collaboration deal with Intellia's IP source, Caribou Biosciences, and made an unspecified Series A investment in the company.

Although Intellia is officially a fledgling, it in-licensed its technology from Caribou Biosciences, which claimed control of a major piece of the intellectual property behind CRISPR-Cas9. Atlas's startup team also includes John Leonard, the former chief scientific officer at AbbVie ($ABBV), and the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research in Boston had shown an early interest in taking their relationship much further into the lab.

Caribou was founded by Jennifer Doudna, a structural biologist from Berkeley who was originally credited as a cofounder of Editas, another CRISPR-Cas9 player, before splitting away. She worked with Emmanuelle Charpentier on gene editing, who threw her support behind CRISPR Therapeutics in Switzerland while MIT's Feng Zhang joined the Editas group. Their work is at a very early stage, but their story of reengineering genes has swiftly captured the attention of the industry. If the DNA-splicing technology works as the pioneers claim it does, the startups in the field are in the opening stages of making some major breakthroughs.

The sudden spotlight, though, has also highlighted tensions among the pioneers in the field, raising questions about who owns what in CRISPR-Cas9. That's a story that will likely take years to unfold.

 "Our collaboration with Novartis is an important building block for Intellia that will greatly accelerate our effort to translate the promise of CRISPR/Cas9 into meaningful advances for patients," said Intellia CEO Nessan Bermingham. "CAR-Ts and HSCs represent two of the most immediate opportunities for CRISPR therapeutic development, and Novartis, as a leader in this space, is the ideal partner with which to develop strong product pipelines in these areas."

- here's the release