The Sciences

University of California's Fresh CRISPR Patent Could Revive Gene-Editing Row

The bitter dispute between the university and the Broad Institute over patent rights for the valuable CRISPR technology was settled recently in court.

New Delhi: The University of California (UC) will soon gain its third patent on the gene-editing technology knows as CRISPR, four years after it entered into a legal battle with the Broad Institute due to a crossover between patents filed by the two parties.

UC has obtained a notice of allowance from the US Patent and Trademark Office, meaning the patent will likely be received in eight weeks.

CRISPR is a natural mechanism that prokaryotes use to defend themselves against viruses. Prokaryotes are unicellular organisms whose cells lack membranes. Eukaryotes are multicellular and their cells have membranes.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system, developed first by the University of California, combines CRISPR with Cas9 – a protein – to create a molecular tool. This tool can pick out and cut specific sections of a gene, removing it from the genetic sequence. It can be used to remove faulty genes that result in undesirable mutations.

Because of this, patent rights to the technology are likely worth millions of dollars as it can revolutionise the treatment of diseases and assist with genetically modifying crops. CRISPR-Cas9 has proved to be more efficient that other gene-editing technologies.

The new patent was awarded to UC in collaboration with Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umeå University and Krzysztof Chylinski of the University of Vienna. According to the university’s CRISPR lead patent strategist Eldora Ellison, the newer version of CRISPR is more careful about where the genetic sequence needs to be cut.

Also Read: Is There More to Gene Editing Than Creating ‘Designer’ Humans?

According to Reuters, the fresh patent stems from an application filed in 2012 by microbiologists Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley and Charpentier.

This application was the first ever for a CRISPR-related patent. The scientists discovered that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to edit the DNA of prokaryotic cells.

The Broad Institute, a research centre affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, also applied for their own patent that could edit the DNA of eukaryotic cells.

The team, led by bioengineer Feng Zhang, opted for a fast-track review process, which meant they landed the first CRISPR patent in 2014. The UC’s first patent was only granted in early 2018.

Because the University of California felt there was a crossover between the two patent applications, it filed a petition with the Patent and Trademark Office in 2015. It said the Broad Institute’s work was not patentably different from that of Doudna and Charpentier.

However, in late 2017, the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board rejected the claim. The board’s decision was upheld by a federal court in September 2018. The Wire has previously reported the consequences of the court’s decision.

The fresh patent is likely to revive the rivalry between the university and the Broad Institute. UC reported that other systems and CRISPR-related patents are already under development.

However, David Cameron, spokesman for the Broad Institute, said the fresh patent “does not affect the CRISPR patent estate held by Broad, MIT and Harvard in any way”.

To exploit the lucrative nature of the technology, both institutions have licensed their intellectual property to biotech companies. Some companies are using the technology to develop treatments for sickle cells (inherited conditions that affect red blood cells), the rare blood disease beta thalassemia and other ailments.

Where do UC’s three patents differ?

Ellison, the university’s lead strategist, said the three patents are not limited to use in eukaryotes. They allow CRISPR to be used in both cellular and noncellular environments, such as laboratories.

The three patents differ in the specific guide RNAs. Guide RNAs direct the Cas9 protein in the CRISPR technology to a specific genome location to accurately edit the DNA.

While older patents were limited to research, the new one will have implications for commercial use as well.

“Together, this patent application and prior U.S. Patent Numbers 10,000,772 and 10,113,167, cover CRISPR-Cas9 methods and compositions useful as gene-editing scissors in any setting, including in vitro, as well as within live plant, animal and human cells,” the university said in a statement.

The new patent will encompass the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology in “any cellular or non-cellular environment,” Ellison stated.