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Will Editas Medicine's CEO Change Help or Hurt?

By Keith Speights and Brian Orelli, PhD - Feb 20, 2021 at 8:03AM

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Turnover at the top of a company can be troubling. But it can sometimes be a good thing.

There's been something of a game of musical chairs in the executive ranks of Editas Medicine (EDIT -0.22%) over the past couple of years. The biotech recently announced the departure of its CEO and immediately named a replacement. In this Motley Fool Live video, recorded on Feb. 10, Motley Fool contributors Keith Speights and Brian Orelli discuss what impact Editas' latest CEO change might have on the company. 

Keith Speights: Let's switch to a non-COVID-19 story for a few minutes here, Brian. A biotech that you and I have both followed some of the years, Editas Medicine, just announced a change at the top on Monday of this week.

What Editas said was that their current board chairman, James Mullen, is going to replace Cynthia Collins as CEO. That will go into effect in just a few days, on February 15. Collins was also a board member and she stepped in initially as interim CEO back in 2019 after Katrine Bosley unexpectedly stepped down and left the company. Mullen is going to retain his role as chairman of the board.

What do you think about this musical chairs game at this biotech?

Brian Orelli: Mullen was a former CEO of two different companies at Patheon, and then I think before that, Biogen. So he's definitely got experience in the C-suites. I do wonder whether this has to do somewhat with the partial clinical hold that the FDA put on EDIT-301 which treats sickle cell disease. The FDA said they can start enrolling patients, but they need a better potency assay. That will be measuring the potency of the cells that are about to go back into the patient before they can start enrolling if the efficacy phase of the study and last month their chief scientific officer left. It seems like there's some internal issues at the company that need to be worked out and maybe that's the reason why the CEO lost her job and the chairman is stepping in.

Speights: The FDA has cleared that study of EDIT-301 to move forward now, right?

Orelli: I don't think so. The last update and I saw said it was allowed to start enrolling patients, but once they get to the efficacy part where they're starting to measure efficacy in the clinical trial, they have to have the assay worked out before they can start enrolling those patients.

Speights: Okay. I think you're right. Let's say it's move forward, but they've got some things to resolve before they can really proceed.

Orelli: Right. Exactly. Then they also have EDIT-101, which is for an eye disease called Leber congenital amaurosis 10. That's basically all Editas has. It seems like maybe they're falling behind CRISPR Therapeutics (CRSP 2.78%). Certainly in market cap they are about the same size, the last time I looked about same size as Intellia (NTLA 5.22%). I felt like they had a lead on Intellia at some point in market cap.

Speights: Yeah, and Editas had been an underperformer compared to CRISPR Therapeutics and the ticker there for CRISPR is CRSP, I think. They have been an underperformer relative to CRISPR Therapeutics for a while, but over the last several months, Editas stock has really soared. I think a lot of that came with ARK CEO Cathie Wood really endorsing just gene editing in general and one of her ETFs had a stake in Editas, and still does. I think that gave the company a spark. They had some good news for EDIT-301 in December at a conference. That was another catalyst. The stock has come back, although some of these changes at the top probably are raising some concerns among investors about what's going on there.

Orelli: CRISPR stocks in general have been very positive. They've been riding the wave up even though they may have some internal issues. I think investors have largely ignored them that certainly there wasn't a 20, 30, 40% drop when the CEO change or maybe investors are even happy to see the CEO changes after all these other issues with the chief scientific officer leaving and the partial hold so maybe the change at the CEO level is viewed as a good thing for investors.

Speights: Right. Based on what I've seen from their early data on EDIT-301 in treating sickle cell anemia, the therapy looks promising, still very early obviously, but it does look promising and Editas thinks they may even have an edge over CRISPR Therapeutics with the approach they are taking. But again, we'll just have to wait and see how this all pans out.

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Stocks Mentioned

Editas Medicine, Inc. Stock Quote
Editas Medicine, Inc.
EDIT
$13.47 (-0.22%) $0.03
Biogen Inc. Stock Quote
Biogen Inc.
BIIB
$211.93 (0.26%) $0.55
Intellia Therapeutics Stock Quote
Intellia Therapeutics
NTLA
$53.41 (5.22%) $2.65
CRISPR Therapeutics Stock Quote
CRISPR Therapeutics
CRSP
$66.96 (2.78%) $1.81

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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