Who owns the biggest biotech advance of the century Geneticists in Boston may have found a way around a high-stakes patent dispute over one of the most significant biotechnology breakthroughs in recent years, a gene-editing tool called CRISPR.
CRISPR is faster, easier and cheaper than other gene editing techniques. It works in nearly everyone’s hands, democratising the pursuit of tweaking genes, which can be used for everything from breeding better plants to developing treatments for leukaemia or HIV infections.
But the technology is embroiled in a patent dispute between researchers in California and Massachusetts.
Researchers Jennifer Doudna at the University of California in Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany, filed the first patent on CRISPR, dated December 2012. But it was Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who was granted the patent, although he filed in October 2013. Zhang and the Broad Institute paid to expedite their patent and were the first to show that the tool works in human cells.
Cut it out
In April 2015, the University of California filed a request with the US patent office saying that the patent should belong to Doudna and Charpentier.
Last week, Zhang, announced a potential way to resolve the dispute: his team has identified two novel DNA-slicing enzymes that aren’t covered by any of the previous patents and that can replace the one at the centre of the legal spat. Zhang’s team has used the enzymes to successfully edit human genomes.
The discovery could potentially sidestep the patent dispute: it offers a different way to perform CRISPR gene editing – one that can be covered by a separate patent, so if the US patent office agrees to award the first patent to Doudna and Charpentier, Zhang and his colleagues will still be able to patent protect their future work.
Resolving the dispute this way would free up money for research that might otherwise be spent on legal proceedings – although Daniel Anderson at MIT thinks that progress is continuing apace even with the legal issue. “Boy, I sure see a lot of research and innovation. The patent dispute is not standing in the way of research and innovation as far as I can tell,” he says.
The new discovery is important, he adds – although only with more research will we find out if it is better than the existing enzyme. “It’s too early to tell,” says Anderson. “This is not going to be the last [DNA-cutting enzyme] that people discover,” says Anderson.
Anderson is a co-founder, with Charpentier and others, of Switzerland-based start-up CRISPR Therapeutics.