Bitter fight over the patents for CRISPR, a breakthrough in DNA editing

Biologists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize for CRISPR-Cas9, a “powerful and general technology” for editing genomes that’s been hailed as a biotechnology breakthrough. Feng Zhang a researcher in Cambridge at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute won a broad U.S. patent on CRISPR-Cas9 that could give him and his research center control over just about every important commercial use of the technology.

Three heavily financed startup companies, a half-dozen universities are fighting over CRISPR.

During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.

The control of the patents is crucial to several startups that together quickly raised more than $80 million to turn CRISPR into cures for devastating diseases. They include Editas Medicine and Intellia Therapeutics, both of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Companies expect that clinical trials could begin in as little as three years.

Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property—in the form of her own pending patent—has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

Academic labs aren’t waiting for the patent claims to get sorted out. Instead, they are racing to assemble very large engineering teams to perfect and improve the genome-editing technique. On the Boston campus of Harvard’s medical school, for instance, George Church, a specialist in genomics technology, says he now has 30 people in his lab working on it.

In April of this year, Zhang and the Broad won the first of several sweeping patents that cover using CRISPR in eukaryotes—or any species whose cells contain a nucleus (see “Broad Institute Gets Patent on Revolutionary Gene-Editing Method”). That meant that they’d won the rights to use CRISPR in mice, pigs, cattle, humans—in essence, in every creature other than bacteria.

The patent came as a shock to some. That was because Broad had paid extra to get it reviewed very quickly, in less than six months, and few knew it was coming. Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.

SOURCE – Technology Review