Gates, Google Join $120 Million Funding for Genome Editing Firm

Editas Medicine Inc. has raised $120 million from investors to support development of a technology that can precisely edit DNA and potentially treat fatal genetic diseases.

Investors were led by Boris Nikolic, former chief adviser for science and technology to Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates. Nikolic’s fund, which includes Gates as a backer, was created solely to invest in Editas, according to the biotech company’s Chief Executive Officer Katrine Bosley. Nikolic has joined Editas’s board, according to a statement released Monday.

Other investors included venture-capital firm Deerfield Management Co., Fidelity Management & Research Co. and Silicon Valley investors Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures. The fundraising, Editas’s second, garnered nearly three times the amount the company raised in its first financing in 2013 from a group including Flagship Ventures and Polaris Partners.

Editas, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing therapeutics using a technology known as Crispr-Cas9. The company is trying to use Crispr to fix faulty genes that lead to eye disorders, and working with Juno Therapeutics Inc., which engineers immune-system cells to fight cancer. Editas has not started human trials to test treatments yet, and Bosley declined to provide a schedule for them.

“The power of Crispr-Cas9 is broadly appreciated,” she said in an interview. “This is a marathon that we are in here, and all of these investors understand that.”

Genomic Scissors

Crispr allows scientists to edit the human genome by precisely cutting out faulty sections of DNA and replacing them with healthy ones. The technology is relatively cheap and easy compared with other genome editing techniques, and has drawn a rush of scientists interested in modifying everything from diseased human cells to insects and plants.

It’s also been controversial, with some researchers calling for a moratorium on its use in human sperm, eggs and embryos, known as the human germline. One fear is that the technology could introduce changes that would affect not only one patient, but future generations as well. Editas doesn’t work on the human germline.

Crispr has “broad applicability,” said Jim Flynn, managing partner at Deerfield, which is investing $20 million. The partnership with Juno shows potential uses beyond targeting specific diseases linked to single mutations, he said.

Besides Editas, other biotech firms working on genome editing include Crispr Therapeutics, Cellectis SA, Intellia Therapeutics Inc. and Precision BioSciences Inc.