Business

CRISPR takes the wraps off joint venture with Bayer

JANET IWASA

Eight months after striking a $335 million partnership deal, startup CRISPR Therapeutics and Germany’s Bayer AG are taking the wraps off the new company formed to develop drugs using CRISPR’s gene editing technology.

The partners are set to announce Friday that they have christened the joint venture Casebia Therapeutics, and plan to move the company early next year into new offices and labs at 610 Main St. in Cambridge, subleasing 33,000 square feet of space at a Pfizer Inc. research complex outside Kendall Square.

Casebia’s interim chief executive, Axel Bouchon, said the company will focus on treatments for blood disorders, blindness, and congenital heart disease. He expects to have 20 employees in Cambridge by the end of the year, with the workforce expanding fourfold by the end of 2017. The new company’s leased space could accommodate 80 to 120 people, he said.

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Two smaller Casebia teams, initially staffed with 15 to 20 people each, will work in Bayer research buildings in Cologne, Germany, and San Francisco’s Mission Bay.

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“The question is how fast can we scale up,” Bouchon, who heads Bayer HealthCare’s global business development, said in an interview. “Hiring in Cambridge is tough. However, it’s a huge opportunity. If you have an interesting technology and funding, you can tap a pool of scientific talent that is the best in the world.”

Casebia’s name derives from the medical research tool known as Crispr-Cas9, a kind of molecular scissors scientists hope to use to cut out and correct genetic mutations known to cause thousands of diseases. While the emerging approach is still in its early stages of development, it has become one of the hottest corners of the biotech world.

In addition to CRISPR — which is based in Basel, Switzerland, but does its research in Cambridge -- two other Cambridge-based startups, Editas Medicine and Intellia Therapeutics Inc., are working to develop drugs with Crispr-Cas9 technology.

Larger drug companies also have been drawn to the field. Editas has struck its own research partnership with biotech Juno Therapeutics Inc. of Seattle, while Intellia collaborates with Swiss drug giant Novartis AG, which also bases its global research operation in Cambridge. CRISPR itself struck an earlier alliance last fall with Boston’s Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. to use the startup’s gene-editing technology in developing cystic fibrosis drugs.

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Bayer also plans to locate its new East Coast Innovation Center at 610 Main St. The center has a broader mission of managing local pharmaceutical, consumer health, and crop science research alliances, including one with the nearby Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The innovation center will have about 15 employees. CRISPR, meanwhile, plans to move its own headquarters, labs, and 80 employees from 200 Sidney St. to another floor in the building.

By forming a separate company, Bayer and CRISPR can hire management dedicated exclusively to their joint research programs. Casebia was initially funded with $300 million from Bayer; another $35 million was spent to give Bayer an unspecified stake in CRISPR.

The joint venture structure would also enable Casebia to bring on additional investors down the road or go public to raise more money if its research programs advance. Its goal is to bring three to four hematology and ophthalmology programs to clinical trials in the next five years, said Rodger Novak, chief executive of CRISPR Therapeutics.

“This gives us the opportunity to extend our portfolio,” Novak said in an interview. “We’re working on programs we otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to work on. There will be a lot of cross-fertilization.”

While many of the gene editing alliances are focused on specific disease targets, the Bayer-CRISPR partnership is broad enough to form a separate company working on multiple medicines in its three therapeutic areas, Bouchon said.

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“It’s a pure strategic focus, not a single-target focus,” he said. “That’s what makes it completely different.”

‘We’re working on programs we otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to work on.’ There ’

In addition to removing defective genes from patients, modifying, and reinjecting them, he said, Casebia scientists hope to use Bayer’s protein engineering expertise to modify genes in vivo, or inside the body — a process that could help treat many diseases.

“We believe we can improve the precision of the Crispr-Cas9 technology at our process engineering facility in Cologne,” said Bouchon.

Even before it moves into its new Cambridge facility and begins hiring its staff, Casebia will be operating with a small crew of about five employees here and 10 in Cologne. They are being supported by about 15 employees from Bayer and CRISPR.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.