A bold new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, or rather “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” promises to change the practice of medicine as we know it. Not only does it show promise in destroying the HIV virus in infected patients, its technique of self-correction could also produce new organs and even improve crops.
While the technique shows great promise, it is the subject of a sizable patent battle over who its true inventor is.
“These types of actions typically arise only in the context of very successful, very valuable patents,”said Adam Mossoff, who works as a patent specialist at George Mason University School of Law, in a report by The Washington Post. “This patent, in particular, is … a significantly huge advance in gene-editing technology and this type of technology is the core of what has made the biotech revolution.”
Until the lawsuit is resolved, trials of CRISPR on patients will never take place. The technique has already been hailed by Science magazine as the greatest breakthrough of 2015.
Its story goes back to 2012, when researchers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier first used the CRISPR mechanism to carefully cut apart strands of DNA. One year later, researchers Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute at Cambridge and George Church of Harvard Medical School led research teams showing that the technology can be used to edit the genomes humans and mice.
“I think genetics is going to be the source of lot of big decisions that are made by stock analysts, politicians, and so forth, and it’s about time we got excited about genetics,” said Church, one of the holders of CRISPR patents, in the Post report. “If there weren’t a race to sequence the human genome, the human genome would have gotten less attention. If CRISPR didn’t have a race for the technology, there would have been less attention.”
A dozen key patents involving the use of CRISPR are currently at stake. Feng Zhang was awarded several between 2014 and 2015. However, these patents interfered with one filed earlier by Doudna and Charpentier, who is currently director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.
While the technology is now freely available to academic researchers for basic research, companies hoping to utilize the technology will be required to license patents from the institution that wins the lawsuit.
Late last year, three groups of scientists were able to reverse the errant gene responsible for Duchenne muscular dystrophy in mice, giving rise to the hope that this disease may one day be a thing of the past.