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+

Filed Under: biotech, crispr, dna, emmanuelle charpentier, feng zhang, gene editing, genes, jennifer doudna, patent fights, patents
Companies: broad institute, editas medicine, intellia


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Dec 2014 @ 2:22am

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

    We'd all be dead.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 2:48am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Kal Zekdor (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 3:27am

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

        Take a look at Android fragmentation and Software/Hardware Smartphone battles for a good idea of what the Personal Computer would like if today's IP laws were in place in the 80s. There are a lot of parallels.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 31 Dec 2014 @ 6:56am

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

          Android fragmentation has little to do with patents, and a lot to do with mobile phone providers trying to gain Customer lock-in.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            John Fenderson (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 11:04am

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

            This. The impact of bad patents on Android is that they're enabling Microsoft to unfairly extort money from cellphone manufacturers.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Mason Wheeler (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 10:41am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            John Fenderson (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 11:06am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 1 Jan 2015 @ 12:53am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 12 Jul 2016 @ 8:25am

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

              Or at all.

              Technically you might be able to root the device and force an update but who knows if everything will work properly and if you end up bricking your device you might be out of luck.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 31 Dec 2014 @ 1:08pm

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

          I am a bit puzzled as to what the references are to "today's IP laws." Patent laws have changed relatively little since the 1980's, except to the extent that it is more difficult to get a patent today than it was in the 1980's.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 3:47am

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

        Not to mention that most of the people responsible for the innovations would have been in jail for their youthful indiscretions anyway (a lot of them were phone phreakers, hackers, etc. before they started their own companies).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Chris Brand, 31 Dec 2014 @ 10:59am

        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)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 11:07am

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

          So Gates' solution to the patent problem is to become a patent troll? That explains so very much, especially around Intellectual Ventures.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Dec 2014 @ 2:59am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 3:37am

      Re: Common good needs recognition

      Well, of course. I mean, absolutely nothing was invented before the patent system was put into place. It's similar to how absolutely nothing was created before copyright was introduced, because clearly without those two laws no-one would ever invent, or create, anything.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 2 Jan 2015 @ 7:22am

        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).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 3:55am

      Re: Common good needs recognition

      Just to clarify, the above wasn't aimed at you, but rather at the idea I've seen kicked around where people claim that because things have been created while copyright exists, obviously copyright is responsible for the creation.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Ed Allen, 31 Dec 2014 @ 9:23am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 31 Dec 2014 @ 5:03am

    genetically modify monkeys

    It's possible that the USPTO is actually trying to stop this discovery from moving forward before it can be used against them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 6:01am

    Once upon a time they were children with a dream of growing up and saving the world... and the world taught them it is more important to get paid than save a single life.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Dec 2014 @ 7:17am

    given the changes in the law and in the courts making it much harder for patent owners to protect their inventions - isn't Techdirt concerned it may soon have nothing to talk about?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Dec 2014 @ 7:28am

      Re:

      "given the changes in the law and in the courts making it much harder for patent owners to protect their inventions - isn't Techdirt concerned it may soon have nothing to talk about?"

      Because pretty soon there will be no more inventions, huh?

      What load.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Christopher (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 8:12am

    Is there an eminent domain for this?

    Because, I'm thinking, there should be.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Dec 2014 @ 10:27am

    who cares about saving lives, I need more and more money because I have a serious mental illness towards hoarding money I can never use.

    That's how I see it

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Homer (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 12:53pm

    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".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 31 Dec 2014 @ 4:24pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jan 2015 @ 7:35am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    WaitWot, 5 Jan 2015 @ 4:16pm

    Genes can be edited???

    "CRISPR could potentially allow the defective gene that causes serious problems for those with cystic fibrosis to be edited to produce normal proteins"

    How the hell do you 'edit' genes in place?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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