Update: see also this post at Xconomy for a look at this issue.
CRISPR/Cas9 is an excellent technique for gene manipulation. Its discovery is absolutely going to be the subject of a Nobel prize; I think it’s pretty much of a lock. But at the moment, there’s a vicious legal fight going on over who owns the right to it. Technology Review has a good overview here.
I’m glad that they’ve gone to the trouble, because I wouldn’t want to summarize it myself. I last wrote about this here, and things have not gotten any less tangled. There are conflicting patent claims, multiple startup companies, and all sorts of cross-licensing tangles. To add to the confusion, the technology is still evolving, and may well evolve past some of the existing claims:
Few researchers are now willing to discuss the patent fight. Lawsuits are certain and they worry anything they say will be used against them. “The technology has brought a lot of excitement, and there is a lot of pressure, too. What are we going to do? What kind of company do we want?” Charpentier says. “It all sounds very confusing for an outsider, and it’s also quite confusing as an insider.”
Academic labs aren’t waiting for the patent claims to get sorted out. Instead, they are racing to assemble very large engineering teams to perfect and improve the genome-editing technique. On the Boston campus of Harvard’s medical school, for instance, George Church, a specialist in genomics technology, says he now has 30 people in his lab working on it.
Because of all the new research, Zhang says, the importance of any patent, including his own, isn’t entirely clear. “It’s one important piece, but I don’t really pay attention to patents,” he says. “What the final form of this technology is that changes people’s lives may be very different.”
At the moment, Feng Zhang and the Broad Institute have what appears to be the first and widest patent coverage. But some key claims of the patent seem to be based on the idea that extending the technique to human cells was an inventive step, and not everyone in the field buys that at all – saying, on the contrary, that the way the technique just seems to work on everything from bacteria on up is one of its distinguishing features. So all this looks very likely to end up in court, or at least most of the way to court until the various parties can work out some sort of settlement.
I expect that to be the way this situation resolves, actually, but clarity isn’t going to be available for a while yet. What will drive the whole process will be which CRISPR variants show the most medical promise, and that is yet to shake out. In the meantime, research in the area is going so quickly that it’s hard to keep up – certainly on a far different time scale than the patent system.