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Broad Institute Wins Patent To CRISPR: Here's Why It Matters

16 February 2017, 8:39 am EST By Alyssa Navarro Tech Times
A battle over the patent to gene-editing technology CRISPR pitted biochemist Jennifer Doudna (second to the left) against researcher Feng Zhang (second to the right). A patent office ruled on Feb. 15 that Zhang retains the lucrative rights to the technology.  ( Anna Webber | Getty Images )

The battle over the patent to gene-editing technique CRISPR ended as a U.S. patent office ruled that Cambridge-based Broad Institute will retain lucrative rights to the technology.

In a bitterly fought dispute considered the "biotechnology trial of the century," Feng Zhang of Broad Institute won the patent to CRISPR against Jennifer Doudna of University of California, Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute.

Both sides claimed to have developed CRISPR, but on Feb. 15 the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled in favor of Broad Institute, saying it found no "interference" in the patents awarded to Zhang.

The Fight Over CRISPR

In June 2012, Doudna and Charpentier published a groundbreaking paper that showed how CRISPR - a natural gene-editing system - could be exploited. The duo's initial demonstration made use of chemicals in a test tube.

In December 2012, Zhang came up with a method to apply CRISPR in editing mammalian cells. In fact, Zhang was the first one to accomplish the task of using CRISPR to living cells.

Now, the ruling states Zhang's innovations were not simply elaborations of what Charpentier and Doudna had already invented. Broad Institute, which is closely affiliated with Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agreed with the ruling.

However, officials from UC Berkeley are considering to file an appeal, the New York Times reported.

But Doudna and Charpentier seemed unfazed by the board's decision. In fact, the ruling left the door open for them to obtain their own patents covering the use of CRISPR for all types of cells.

Doudna, who is credited as the inventor of the technique, drew an analogy.

"They will have a patent on green tennis balls," said Doudna. "We will get a patent on all tennis balls."

Here's Why It Matters

CRISPR, which has been awarded the scientific breakthrough of 2015, has attracted the attention of many biologists simply because it makes it easier to edit letters in an organism's DNA, like a pair of molecular scissors.

It's a groundbreaking technology that could potentially pave the way for the development of new treatments and cures for diseases, but it also raises ethical questions, particularly in terms of proposals to alter the human embryo. Chinese scientists have already used CRISPR to edit genes of human embryos.

Such a powerful gene-editing technique could revolutionize and change the world forever, and if the technique delivers on its promises, it could be worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Doudna and Charpentier have already won countless awards over the last four years since their paper was published. The research is likely to win a Nobel Prize, but it remains to be seen whether the duo would get their own patents and how broad it would be.

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