What happened

Shares of Intellia Therapeutics (NASDAQ:NTLA) fell nearly 24% last month and 29% in all of 2018, according to data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence. The sour end to the year came on the heels of a broad sell-off in global stock markets and the general sentiment among investors that the gene-editing pioneer is lagging too far behind peers Crispr Therapeutics and Editas Medicine.

Crispr and Editas are both enrolling patients in the first clinical trials for CRISPR-based tools today. Intellia Therapeutics says it won't be ready to graduate from preclinical work until 2020. However, as an expanded collaboration with Novartis demonstrates, the company thinks moving slowly in the beginning will provide long-term advantages.

A sliding chart drawn on a chalkboard.

Image source: Getty Images.

So what

It didn't move the needle as far as the share price was concerned, but Intellia Therapeutics announced an expanded collaboration with Novartis in early December that landed the upstart a one-time $10 million payment. That will pad a balance sheet that sported $293 million in cash and cash equivalents at the end of the third quarter of 2018. 

More importantly, the expanded collaboration will allow Intellia Therapeutics to use Novartis' lipid nanoparticle delivery technology for all genome editing applications in its pipeline. What the heck does that mean? Well, the overhyped discussion of CRISPR gene-editing tools often focuses solely on intended outcomes: repairing or correcting faulty DNA and treating or curing disease. It's much more complicated than that.

One major obstacle that seems to get glossed over in the discussion is how the drug payloads will be delivered to the targeted human cells. There are various ways to do it, including via viruses or by packaging the engineered CRISPR system into tiny molecular soccer balls called lipid nanoparticles. There are still unknowns regarding how well each delivery system will work in human cells -- something that could come back to upset faster-moving peers in certain disease targets -- which is why Intellia Therapeutics is focusing heavily on the delivery system before readying a drug candidate for clinical trials.

Now what

Considering the hype surrounding CRISPR gene editing, investors may want to prepare for another volatile year for Intellia Therapeutics stock. Whether developments relating to the lipid nanoparticle delivery systems will be enough to excite Wall Street remains to be seen, but there may not be many updates from the preclinical company outside of announcing additional collaborations.

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