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9 July 2017Sectors

The global CRISPR battleground

Genetically modified humans are no longer in the realm of fantasy, and neither is the patenting of the technology that makes this possible.

While the well known CRISPR/Cas9 dispute between the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT on one side, and the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and the University of Vienna on the other, has mainly been centred in the US, the technology is used globally. Being an exciting emerging invention, more and more companies are claiming the patent rights to it.

The CRISPR dispute has been one of the biggest clashes in the life sciences industry in the past few years. But many from outside the life sciences industry might find it challenging to understand why this technology has been so important to the parties involved.

CRISPR is the acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat, a description of the way short and repeated DNA sequences in the genomes of bacteria and other microorganisms are organised. CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene-editing technique that can target and modify DNA with high accuracy.

In February this year, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gave victory to the Broad Institute. The PTAB decision explained that the Broad Institute provided sufficient evidence to show that its claims, which are all limited to CRISPR systems in a eukaryotic environment, do not interfere with UCB’s claims, which are not restricted to any environment.

The PTAB decided that the inventions by the Broad Institute “would not have been obvious over the invention of CRISPR systems in any environment, including in prokaryotic cells or in vitro, because one of ordinary skill in the art would not have reasonably expected a CRISPR system to be successful in a eukaryotic environment.” The board therefore terminated the interference, which UCB had initiated.

CRISPR elsewhere

What is the landscape of CRISPR in other regions of the world? While the Broad may seem to have dominated the dispute with its win at the PTAB, its opponents appear to be leading the way in Europe. The European Patent Office (EPO) granted a patent covering CRISPR technology to UCB, the University of Vienna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. This was granted on May 10 this year and was separately opposed on May 10 and 12.

Marc Döring, partner at Allen & Overy, comments: “With the high-profile dispute in the UPSTO between the UCB and its co-proprietors on the one hand, and the Harvard University/MIT collaboration at the Broad Institute on the other occupying many of the headlines of late, one may be forgiven for thinking of CRISPR research as solely US-centric, but this is far from the truth.”

“In commercial terms, the entities leading the way in the licensing and development of CRISPR research are divided between three broad camps, each with one of the field’s pioneering researchers as its figurehead: UCB (Jennifer Doudna), Charpentier (who is a CRISPR patent co-owner in her own right) and the Broad Institute (Feng Zhang).”

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