US patent agency to decide inventor of powerful gene editing technology

The dispute pits a team from the University of California, Berkeley, against a group from the MIT and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts


The breakthrough gene-editing technology acts like a pair of scissors to cut out and replace parts of a cell’s DNA sequence, with potential for treating genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, and engineering crops. Photo: iStock
The breakthrough gene-editing technology acts like a pair of scissors to cut out and replace parts of a cell’s DNA sequence, with potential for treating genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, and engineering crops. Photo: iStock

New York: A showdown between two teams of top US scientists over who was first to invent a breakthrough gene-editing technology known as CRISPR formally began on Monday as a US government agency launched proceedings to decide the issue.

The outcome could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars as scientists say the powerful technology allows for easier and more precise genetic engineering in living cells. This could lead to advances in plant and animal research and the treatment of deadly human diseases.

A tribunal within the US patent and trademark office (USPTO), which initiated the proceeding known as an interference, will now examine both sides’ evidence, a process that could take months, to determine who should own a patent on the technology.

The dispute pits a team from the University of California, Berkeley, led by researcher Jennifer Doudna, against a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by Feng Zhang, and the Broad Institute, a research organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While Doudna’s team was the first to file an application for a patent on the technology, in 2013, the Broad-MIT team was first to be granted a patent, in April 2014.

In April, Doudna’s team requested the interference for the PTO to reconsider who deserves the patent. On Monday it designated her team as the “senior party,” which means it is presumed to be the first inventor.

Lee McGuire, the Broad Institute’s spokesman, said in a statement that the senior party status is a temporary designation and could change after the evidence is presented.

“(We) are confident the USPTO will reach the same conclusion it did initially when it awarded the patent and will continue to recognize the Broad and MIT roles in developing this transformative technology,” he said.

A representative for the University of California, Berkeley declined to comment.

CRISPR acts like a pair of scissors to cut out and replace parts of a cell’s DNA sequence. Scientists hail its potential for treating genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, and engineering crops. Others worry about its possible future use for editing human embryos to make “designer babies.”

CRISPR is being rapidly licensed and commercialized. Intellia Therapeutics, a company co-founded by Doudna that is using the technology, said in a statement on Tuesday that “Berkeley has significant evidence to support their intellectual property.”

Editas Medicine, which counts Zhang as a founder, declined to comment, citing its filing last week for a $100 million initial public offering. Reuters