The Battle for CRISPR Technology: Who really Owns It?

By Bart Kolodziejczyk

The face of genetic engineering is being revolutionized with the emergence of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. You have probably heard of it, but if you haven’t, here you go: CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and it is a group of bacterial DNA sequences into which pieces of viral DNA were plugged into while the bacterium was being attacked. The CRISPR/Cas9 is a genome editing technology that can be used to alter genes in living organisms permanently.

In July 2017, a research team in the U.S proved that they could alter the DNA of human embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. However, there have been controversies surrounding this technology, mainly because of ethical and biosafety concerns. Importantly, the question of who owns the patent to this technology is also undecided, which brings up the question of who can use the technology for commercial purposes.

The CRISPR battle is being spearheaded by the University of California (UC) against the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its associates. UC claims that it has a patent that covers the uses of CSISPR in every type of cell, but the Broad Institute claims that they should own the patent that covers the use of the technology in eukaryotes, which is the focal point for the development of human medicines using the CRISPR technology,

The group of litigants led by the UC argue that the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) ruled wrongly in February in favor of the the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and two associates — Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge — in a judgement that said the Broad group invented the use of CRISPR usage in eukaryotic cells. In order to overturn the ruling, the UC filed an appeal based on the argument that the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) “ignored key evidence” and “made multiple errors.” This argument was contained in a brief sent to the U.S Court of Appeals on July 25.

However, the battle for ownership of CRISPR took a dramatic turn when Millipore Sigma, a subsidiary of Merck KGaA, a German pharmaceutical company entered into the fray. In a claim filed by Millipore Sigma, they claim that they have the right to merge genetic information into eukaryotic cells using CRISPR and that “the method does not comprise a process for modifying the germ line genetic identity of a human being.” The battle seems far from coming to an end as a statement credited to the European Patent Office (EPO) shows that it intends to grant a patent to Millipore Sigma to own the use of CRISPR in this manner. There are other similar patents being submitted, and some have been granted, for example in Australia.

Therefore, even though the CRISPR technology has ushered in new frontiers in genetic engineering, the subject of who owns what looks like it might be the topic of controversial discussions for a while.

Advertisements