The Patent Battle

The CRISPR-Cas9 system has had a breakout year, spreading to labs around the globe and proving that it is a revolutionary DNA editing technique. It allows us to edit DNA - the source code of life - cheaply and with remarkable precision.

Thanks to this technique, we can start tackling genetic diseases like down's syndrome and global killers like HIV. But behind the massive success lies a patent battle over who invented it first. It involves three heavily-backed startups, 6 high-profile universities, and thousands of legal documents.

Considering that this is one of the most promising breakthroughs in recent decades, it's not exactly the welcome that one would hope for. However, since commercial control over CRISPR could be worth billions, sadly, this war is kind of expected.

“Everyone knows there are conflicting claims,” Rodger Novak, CEO of CRISPR Therapeutics in Switzerland, asserts in a release. And indeed, there are a number of sides to this story.

On one side of this battle are Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who both won the $3 million Breakthrough Prize for developing the CRISPR-Cas9 system. On the other side is Feng Zhang, who won a broad U.S. patent on CRISPR-Cas9 last April.

At the center of this battle is the rights to what could be the most important genetic engineering technique in biotechnology.

The Conflict

It all starts at Editas Medicine, cofounded by Feng Zhang. Feng Zhang, at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, was granted the patent, which he filed in October 2013. Zhang paid to expedite the patent and was the first to show that the tool works in human cells. However, this doesn’t mean that he has a hold on CRISPR. Jennifer Doudna, an Editas cofounder, broke off from the company and filed her own patent, which is licensed to Intellia Therapeutics. Ultimately, both have intellectual rights to the technology underlying CRISPR...and they gave said rights to opposing companies.

But it doesn't end there.

Jennifer Doudna, at the University of California in Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, filed the first patent on CRISPR, dated to December 2012.

Next Steps

Now the patent battle has turned into a legal one, and the researchers involved are tight-lipped about the whole thing, as they are all worried that what they say will be used against them in later legal hearings.

On October 26th of this year, the CRISPR patent wars really entered full swing, with the filing of European oppositions against the first patent granted in Europe (which was to Zhang and the aforementioned Broad Institute). In fact, at least nine different opponents filed oppositions against it before the deadline.

And more oppositions are expected in relation to CRISPR. This first patent filing was closely followed by the granting of two other European patents, and all of these are expected to be contested.

Ultimately, the procedures that will come from these filings could result in an amendment or even the complete revocation of the patents. But there is no real end in sight, as the CRISPR patent landscape is extremely complex. There are currently patents and applications covering the basic CRISPR/Cas system, it's methods for use, improvements to the system...and this is just the beginning.

Experts say that it is likely to be at least five years before the final outcome is known. Fortunately, this hasn't stopped academic labs and other researchers from hopping on the technique.

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