The Troubled Technology Getting the Hollywood Treatment
Recent biotech news has my mind going back to 1997.
Cellphones were evolving from being big dumb bricks to being small dumb bricks. But they were relatively rare… most of us made do with beepers.
As for the internet, most people had no idea what it was, but America Online was how you got your first taste, while sitting behind a PC connected to a dial-up modem.
And as for biotech, there was a bunch of stuff that could kill you that probably won’t these days. Thousands of drugs may have failed in trials over the past 19 years, but enough have been approved to make a dent in everything from cancer to infectious disease.
… And the infamous late-’90s tech bubble was just starting to work up a full head of steam.
At the time, I was working an IT gig while studying, keeping mail-processing machines networked… and sorting mail at high speeds.
One Monday, as I replaced a damaged relay, some of my female co-workers arrived. They were chattering excitedly about a wedding they had attended over the weekend.
“Wow, that was amazing” one said.
“Did you see her dress?” said the other.
“Who got married?” I interrupted.
“Jennifer Lopez. She got married to our waiter friend.”
“Jennifer who?” I asked.
“She’s an actress.”
Little did I know that actress would someday become famous. Not long afterward, the biopic Selena was released, with Lopez in the leading role, launching her career in earnest.
The reason I bring up Jennifer Lopez is news that she is producing a new TV show now…one that deals with a growing biotech trend.
The name of the show is C.R.I.S.P.R. It’s described as a “bioterror” drama, which, to my ear, sounds like the same tired old story Hollywood always loves to peddle… the dangers of technology and “trying to play God.”
Seldom do we get shows that paint technology in a positive light. It’s usually something along the lines of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.
As for the title of the new TV show, I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now. CRISPR is the acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. It was originally discovered as a mechanism used by bacteria to defend against infection.
Yes, bacteria get infections too. Their internal wetware gets hijacked by viruses, and the CRISPR mechanism allows them to modify their DNA on the fly as a defense mechanism.
That discovery also allows us to use CRISPR as a technology to modify the code in the genomes of other organisms… including humans.
The CRISPR field is red-hot right now. Not only is it making for a dystopian J.Lo TV show, but multiple companies using the technology have IPO’d this year.
This week, a new gene editing company called CRISPR Therapeutics IPO’d on the market.
It’s the third CRISPR-based biotech to IPO this year, following on the heels of Editas in February and Intellia in May.
CRISPR has tremendous potential for new human therapies. Revolutionary potential, as a matter of fact.
But the technology is caught in a legal tug-of-war.
Multiple research facilities have filed patent claims regarding CRISPR, including MIT, University of California and the Broad Institute.
It’s a fierce legal fight, which makes sense, because there is more than just academic credit at stake here: Many billions of dollars hinge on owning the rights to this tech.
But until intellectual property mess gets sorted out, it’s hard to say which CRISPR biotech owns the rights to this invention.
With biotechs on the market staking competing claims, picking one is a crapshoot, since we have no way of knowing who will win in court. If one loses the patent battle, its value will likely be slashed to a fraction of what it is right now.
I would recommend waiting for clarity before jumping into any CRISPR companies.
That doesn’t mean you should stay away from gene therapy entirely.
There are plenty of companies on the market that are more clinically advanced than CRISPR biotechs right now, and have much stronger patent protections for their technology.
Companies that specialize in alternative forms of gene editing are much safer plays until the CRISPR patent mess is resolved.
To a bright future,
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