The gene-editing debate just got more complicated

Xavier Symons
February 25, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

As the debate over gene-editing intensifies, elite US universities are now fighting over a patent for CRISPR-Cas9 technology .

Last Wednesday the The US Patent and Trademark Office ruled that a CRISPR patent application from a researcher based at the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute 'did not conflict' with an earlier application by researchers from UC Berkeley.

The researchers who first discovered CRISPR technology, Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Plank Institute) and Jennifer Doudna (Berkeley), filed a patent on behalf of UC Berkeley in 2012. That application covered the basic contours of the technology. Yet Chinese-American researcher Feng Zhang had filed a patent application shortly afterward, which described in further detail how to use the technology in the cells of higher organisms, i.e., "eukaryotic" cells.

The Patent and Trademark Office ruled that The Broad patent is "sufficiently distinct as to be separately patentable from the claims of the Doudna/Charpentier group's patent application, which cover the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in any setting, including eukaryotic cells and other cell types".

Legal experts have expressed surprise at the decision, which implies that some researchers will need to obtain licenses from both institutes. "Anyone wishing to use CRISPR [eg, including agro uses], will need a license from Berkeley, while only uses involving eukaryotes will require both Berkeley and Broad", said Jorge Contreras, an expert in genetics and intellectual property at the University of Utah.

Some observers argue that the technology should not be patented at all, but rather should be available to any researchers wishing to use it. This Thursday the non-profit group Knowledge Ecology International plans to file a request to the Department of Health and Human Services asking the federal government to step in and ensure that CRISPR is not patented.