Will Patents Ruin The Most Important Biotech Discovery In Recent Years?

from the rhetorical-question dept

Although not many outside the world of the biological sciences have heard of it yet, the CRISPR gene editing technique may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of recent years — if patent battles don’t ruin it. Technology Review describes it as:

an invention that may be the most important new genetic engineering technique since the beginning of the biotechnology age in the 1970s. The CRISPR system, dubbed a “search and replace function” for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters. During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.

Unfortunately, rivalry between scientists claiming the credit for key parts of CRISPR threatens to spill over into patent litigation:

[A researcher at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, Feng] Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because [Jennifer] Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property — in the form of her own pending patent — has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, [another CRISPR researcher, Emmanuelle] Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

Things are moving quickly on the patent front, not least because the Broad Institute paid extra to speed up its application, conscious of the high stakes at play here:

Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.

The patent documents have caused consternation. The scientific literature shows that several scientists managed to get CRISPR to work in human cells. In fact, its easy reproducibility in different organisms is the technology’s most exciting hallmark. That would suggest that, in patent terms, it was “obvious” that CRISPR would work in human cells, and that Zhang’s invention might not be worthy of its own patent.

Whether obvious or not, it looks like the patent granted may complicate turning the undoubtedly important CRISPR technique into products. That, in its turn, will mean delays for life-changing and even life-saving therapies: for example, CRISPR could potentially allow the defective gene that causes serious problems for those with cystic fibrosis to be edited to produce normal proteins, thus eliminating those problems.

Although supporters of patents will argue as usual that they are necessary to encourage the discovery of new treatments, CRISPR is another example where patents simply get in the way. The discoveries were made by scientists in the course of their work in fundamental science at academic institutions, not because they were employed by a company to come up with a new product. According to some, the basic application of CRISPR to human cells that everyone is fighting over may even be obvious. The possibility of legal action will doubtless discourage investment in companies working in this area, and thus slow down the flow of new treatments. As usual, the only ones who win here are the lawyers.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Companies: broad institute, editas medicine, intellia

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Comments on “Will Patents Ruin The Most Important Biotech Discovery In Recent Years?”

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31 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Good thing this syndrome didn't begin in an earlier era

I can’t remember who said it, might have been Bill Gates, though I’m pretty sure it was one of the major players in the early computing world, but they basically said that if today’s ‘IP laws’ had existed when computers were first entering the scene, the computer as we know it would not exist.

If today’s utterly insane laws had existed back then, it would have been just too difficult to bring everything together to create the hardware, and software, required for a computer to actually be usable, as anyone who tried to do so would have been sued into oblivion.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Good thing this syndrome didn't begin in an earlier era

Android “fragmentation” has nothing to do with IP, and in fact it looks a whole lot like the state of the PC market back when “IBM-compatible” was still a term used to describe it.

It’s a sign of healthy competition in a still-developing market, and it’s not anywhere near as big a problem as the self-serving iDiot shills proclaim it to be, in large part because Google has the historical experience of the early IBM-compatible era to look back at and help guide their decisions WRT the evolution of the platform.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Good thing this syndrome didn't begin in an earlier era

“and it’s not anywhere near as big a problem as the self-serving iDiot shills proclaim it to be”

This. I always have to laugh when people who hate Android trot this out as the big problem with Android. If that’s the “big problem,” then Android is in really excellent shape.

Although “fragmentation” is something that developers have to deal with, the problem is really a relatively minor one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Good thing this syndrome didn't begin in an earlier era

The problem with the fragments is not the fragmentation per se, apart from the slight detrimental effect on developers, but that the phone companies are locking devices to their distro and then failing to supply updates in a timely manner.

Chris Brand says:

Re: Re: Good thing this syndrome didn't begin in an earlier era

You mean this quote ?
“If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today.… The solution to this is patent exchanges with large companies and patenting as much as we can.”
Bill Gates, “Challenges and Strategy” (16 May 1991)

Anonymous Coward says:

Common good needs recognition

Discoveries with the very real potential to save lives and serve the greater common good of humanity should be assigned to the UN. At the same time, the UN should be exempt from being sued by private enterpri$e$.

Claiming that nobody invents if they can’t smell a profit is a bogus argument brought by those who themselves only act for monetary gain. As if human inventiveness lay dormant until someone invented the patent system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Common good needs recognition

I’m not sure how the fact that things were invented before the current patent system was installed is at all relevant. The patent system has little to do with the actual process of invention and everything to do with the commercialization of those inventions. Practices to protect and encourage this date back 100s of years before the current system.

To translate the above discoveries into potentially life saving therapies will require literally hundreds of millions of dollars of (very high risk) investment. This level of investment could never materialize without the potential for a significant return and this would never be possible without the protection of patents. People may not like that reality but that doesn’t make it any less real.

As for the patent itself, it’s like Churchill’s quote about democracy; it’s the worst form of government there is with the exception of all of alternatives. The same can be said of the patent system. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but if you think the above discoveries could be turned into medicine in the next 20 years without it, you’re incredibly naive. (Though not as naive as thinking the UN should in some way play a role in managing innovation. I won’t even touch that absurdity).

Ed Allen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Common good needs recognition

Once again funneling money into the pockets of a few is being sold as “it means more money so that is good for everybody”. Ignoring that “everybody” is US, so the money taken from US to engorge the robber’s pockets benefits THEM at our expense. That is the opposite of what we should want.

Copyrights and patents were initially to impede the sharing of ideas so that the holders’ capital could spread and harvest returns before the ideas’ spread choked the rewards down.

In a world of wire transfers between banks capital has no problem keeping up but the impediments are still there so business models don’t have to change (because change runs the risk of reducing revenues). The Politicians never seem to learn that the cries of pending doom if anything changes are always shone to be false after the fact.

Growing the pie by sharing instead of restricting use to a few is always better for everybody, both US and what would have been the original holders.

Homer (profile) says:

Will Patents Ruin The Most Important Biotech Discovery In Recent Years?

I certainly hope so.

As much as I despise the patents racket, meddling with nature to create genetic mutations is even worse.

It’s also highly ambivalent. On the one hand, these “scientists” claim that we need GMO because the population is exploding and there isn’t enough food to feed everyone, but on the other hand those same “scientists” then claim that they need to create human mutations in order to make us live even longer, thus further exacerbating the problem of overpopulation.

Clearly these idiots need to go back to the drawing board and figure out which problem they really want to solve.

Although I think I already know what their true objective is, and it has absolutely nothing to do with “science”.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Will Patents Ruin The Most Important Biotech Discovery In Recent Years?

You know what else is ‘unnatural’? Glasses. Contact lenses. Corrective surgery. If nature determines that someone should be blind, then damn it, who are we to be playing god and doing something about it! /s

The world moves on, whether you want it to or not, get used to it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Will Patents Ruin The Most Important Biotech Discovery In Recent Years?

Thank God you don’t have a child with Cystic Fibrosis, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy or one of several thousand other incredibly grievous and currently untreatable genetic disorders that could be, not treated, but cured by these discoveries. Hopefully you or your family never need to benefit from therapies that all of the “idiot” scientists devote their their lives to developing. Ignorance must really be bliss.

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