Na An, MJLST Staffer
Earlier this month, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) declared an interference to determine which one of the two research groups will be awarded the patent protection of one of the most important scientific discoveries in the past decade: CRISPR technology. This technology enables deletion, repair or replacement of genes in such a precise fashion that it could be worth billions of dollars in human health, agriculture and biotechnology industries.
Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats system (CRISPR) is a mechanism used by the immune system to resist invading viruses by recording their genetic information and then specifically target these exogenous genetic elements in bacteria, mammals and other organisms. It provides a reliable and precise tool for editing genes. Upon its discovery, CRISPR has been adopted for a wide range of applications from creating animal models with human cancers and turning specific genes on and off to genetically modifying plants.
In 2015, companies rushed to invest and occupy early markets of this potentially billion-dollar industry. The first was Novartis, who signed two deals with gene-editing start-ups to use CRISPR for engineering immune cells and blood stem cells, and as a tool for drug discovery. Soon after, AstraZeneca shook hands with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Innovative Genomics Initiative, the Broad and Whitehead Institutes, and Thermo Fisher Scientific to identify and validate new targets in preclinical models with CRISPR. Simultaneously, immunotherapy firm Juno Therapeutics made deals with Editas and Vertex Pharmaceuticals to create anticancer immune cell therapies with an agreement that could be valued at $2.6 billion.
Amid the fast surge of research and commercial opportunities, a patent fight over CRISPR simmers in the background, which raises great uncertainties of the future market structure and commercial potential. The UC Berkeley team, lead by chemist Jennifer Doudna, filed a patent application (No. 13/842,859) on March 15, 2013 with a priority date of May 25, 2012. The application contained broad claims to CRISPR technology, but described only “genetically modified cells that produce Cas9,” an enzyme crucial to CRISPR mechanism, and “Cas9 transgenic non-human multicellular organisms.” On October 15, 2013, the MIT researcher Feng Zhang filed his own patent application (No. 14/054,414) with a priority date of December 12, 2012. Unlike the Doudna application, Zhang contemplated specifically adapting CRISPR in eukaryotic cells. Through Accelerated Examination, USPTO granted Zhang a patent on April 15, 2014, even though Doudna had an earlier invention date and filing date. After several amendments to Doudna application in response to two third-party submissions, the world has been waiting on the USPTO to make a decision. On January 19, 2016, the patent office finally agreed to conduct an interference to decide who was the rightful applicant to award the patent protection on CRISPR.
Since both applications have priority dates prior to March 16, 2013, the patent will be granted on a “first to invent” basis. Interference cases are historically rare and could stretch out for years, considering the high probability that the losing party will appeal the decision. It is unclear what the result will be. Mari Serebrov, regulatory editor at Thomson Reuters BioWorld, said “if the courts rule the technology isn’t patentable, it could chill investment. On the other hand, if one group is allowed the patent, it could result in a monopoly and will probably make licenses more expensive or discourage research because the patents could lock up the field, depending on how broadly they are written.” Faced with the great uncertainty, Monsanto has limited CRISPR’s applications until a decision is made. Tom Adams, vice president of global biotechnology at Monsanto, said “until we understand the intellectual property it’s hard to do much.”
As more capital is pouring in and risks skyrocketing, companies and researchers need to use caution in their inventive and investment activities relating to CRISPR.