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This Is How the CRISPR Trial Will Determine Our Future

Two big institutions are at odds over one of the biggest intellectual rights debate in this century.
Image: Vimeo

Arguments in a trial to determine ownership of CRISPR, a gene editing technology, started Tuesday in Virginia. The outcome will determine who gets ownership of an incredibly lucrative and incredibly powerful tool that has the potential to "treat" genetic disease.

Two groups are contending for the editing technology patent: on one side is MIT's Broad Institute and Harvard University, and on the other is the University of California, Berkeley.


The first patent for this technology was filed in 2012 by University of California, Berkeley, researchers for their work describing how genes could be edited in-vitro, The Scientist reported. Later in 2012, researchers at Harvard and MIT filed a patent for editing genes in eukaryotic cells—like those in a forming baby. The UC Berkeley researchers claimed the second patent violated their patent, and this week's trial will determine who gets intellectual rights to the technology.

Billions of future revenue is at stake in the trial in the US Patent and Trademark Office—essentially a patent court—in Alexandria, Virginia. CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology could be used to genetically modify crops, animals and even fetuses, scientists promise. Previous gene-editing tools have already existed, but none appear to work as quickly or promise such versatility as CRISPR.

US Patent and Trademark Office. Image: Alan Kotok/Flickr

And based on the advances so far, CRISPR's potential is mind-blowing. It could be used to change crop strands to be drought-resistant, or to change disease-carrying parasites to stop the spread of illnesses like malaria. And scientists are hoping it will be able to eliminate genetic disease like cystic fibrosis.

However, changing adult human DNA is notoriously difficult (scientifically and legislatively), and changing fetal DNA is both tricky and controversial. Researchers in China have reported successfully changing the genetics of human embryos with CRISPR technology, Nature reported. One team also used it to introduce genes that would create a resistance to HIV/AIDS.


Even though the technology has progressed, ownership hasn't been established, and the intellectual rights to certain parts of the process are still in question.

The technology will have ethical hurdles (there's the fear it could essentially be used to customize a person's DNA) but it's clear that the patent holder will reap great benefits.

CRISPR and Cas9 are segments of prokaryotic DNA and the associated proteins that are key in editing genetic code, and the general name associated with the editing technology is CRISPR.

The patent debate hinges on whether the initial patent applied mostly to procaryotic cells, which do not have nuclei and are simpler beings (usually single-celled organisms), or whether the patent can also can be extrapolated to eukaryotic cells, which have nuclei are required building blocks of living beings.

In Tuesday's opening arguments, the Broad Institute's counsel stated that the difficulty of editing genes of eukaryotic cells was much more difficult than UC Berkeley's patent detailed, and thus his client's patent didn't necessarily conflict since it was a continuation of that technology, The Scientist reported.

UC Berkeley's counsel argued that the initial patent did describe the process and opened the door to the next steps, and that without this patent, the next-level work wouldn't have been possible.

"And we are just at the beginning: we're still uncovering the capabilities of this system and its many applications," Broad Institute Director Eric Lander said in a piece by the institute.

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