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Brainstorm Health: Free CRISPR Enzyme, Doug Jones and CHIP, Novartis Generics Unit

Good morning, readers! This is Sy.

CRISPR gene editing is widely regarded as one of the most significant advances in the life sciences in decades. The technology, which allows scientists to slice and dice bits of genetic code with the help of special CRISPR enzymes, has implications in everything from curing devastating diseases to making pigs less fatty to creating bigger, tastier, genetically modified tomatoes.

But existing CRISPR technologies are so red-hot that they’ve prompted an epic intellectual property showdown between the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University’s Feng Zhang and U.C. Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and her academic partner Emmanuelle Charpentier (and the warring factions’ various affiliated biotechs). Well, Inscripta, a startup backed by Venrock, wants to take the IP considerations out of the equation by providing a new kind of CRISPR enzyme to (most) scientists at no cost.

“We want to liberate the research. We want to make it unencumbered, free,” Inscripta CEO Kevin Ness tells Fortune. Inscripta has a different CRISPR enzyme from the Cas9 and Cpf1 varieties most commonly being experimented with today. Called “MAD7,” the enzyme is available for free to scientists innovating in the space. “You can go right to the website, download the sequences instantly, even get a user guide,” says Ness.

Inscripta’s business model is somewhat of a cross between an incubator and public resource library. It’s not a nonprofit, though—companies or scientists who want to simply resell the MAD7 enzyme or use it in their products would have to pay Inscripta a single digit royalty. And, ultimately, the firm’s ambition is to sell technological instruments and reagents to firms to help them with their work.

Still, Ness sees the democratic approach as key to further unlocking CRISPR’s potential. “You can’t build a house without a hammer,” he says.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Real estate giant Keller Williams rolls Fitbits out into employee wellness program. Keller Williams’ 157,000 employees will have access to Fitbit wearables as part of the international real estate outfit’s corporate wellness program. The devices will be available at a discounted price, and the hope is it will encourage workers to take part in competitive fitness programs. I recently sat down with Fitbit CEO James Park at the Fortune offices to chat about his hopes for Fitbit’s future—and the overarching theme was that the firm wants to go from being a maker of cool gadgets to an essential tool in the health care ecosystem, helping doctors and other players better gauge patients’ day to day health with cold, hard data. (MobiHealthNews)


Novartis is selling off some of its generics. Swiss pharma giant Novartis’ generics unit, Sandoz, is selling or closing off some of its products in the United States, Reuters reports. The reason? Pricing pushback in a part of the industry that’s already relatively low-margin. “In response to high price pressure, we are optimizing our U.S. portfolio. This includes the sale or discontinuation of certain non-core products and concentration of investment in strategic areas that will drive growth and improve access,” Novartis said in a statement. (Reuters)


Doug Jones calls on Congress to renew CHIP in victory speech. Doug Jones’ stunning upset in Tuesday night’s Alabama Senate race makes him the first Democrat to be elected to that chamber in the state in 25 years. In his victory speech, which mostly focused on overarching themes of unity, Jones did call out Congress on one specific policy issue: Renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health coverage to about 9 million kids from low- to middle-income families. Congress failed to reauthorize the popular program in September, and now states are on the cusp of running out of funding, prompting warning letters to families that their coverage will soon lapse.


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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