CRISPR/Cas9 controversy brings up unheralded patent issues

CRISPR/Cas9 controversy brings up unheralded patent issuesThe stakes are extremely high right now, as researchers from multiple fields are waiting with bated breath, with the U.S. government deciding on who deserves credit as the inventor of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing.

CRISPR/Cas9, despite the whole gene editing controversy and talk that it may be used to make “designer babies,” has been acclaimed by scientists as a more accurate way to edit genes. But that acclaim has also fanned the flames of the controversy, as critics believe the technology could make it easier to “unethically” edit the genes of animals, plants, and ultimately people. Critics are also concerned that the edited DNA may also be inherited by subjects’ descendants.

Still, the main talking point behind CRISPR/Cas9 has nothing to do with ethics, morality, or the main purpose of the technology. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute, Harvard University, and the University of California-Berkeley are all cited as possible inventors of the groundbreaking technology, with each educational institution claiming their scientists came up with the system. Each scientist involved in the patent case has submitted the requisite literature to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which will be making its decision a few months from now.

While the stakes are truly high, an op-ed published earlier this week on Phys.org posited that people have been “ignoring two important lessons from the CRISPR/Cas9 patent dispute.” These lessons are as follows – patent systems “no longer fit the realities” of science in a broader sense, and patents allow “significant control” to owners regarding how their technologies push forward.

“As basic science and applied technology have become increasingly difficult to distinguish, and more university scientists are receiving patents on ground-breaking discoveries like CRISPR, the old rules no longer seem to make sense,” wrote Shobita Parthasarathy of the University of Michigan, in an op-ed originally published in The Conversation. “The modern patent system was built with individual entrepreneurs and discrete machines in mind. But university-based science is usually incremental and collaborative, driven by the hopes of tenure, promotion, grant funding, respect among colleagues and, if extremely lucky, a major scientific discovery.”

The opinion piece added that patents “ultimately become more hindrance than help,” as scientists have to go through the trouble of applying for licenses so they could continue developing their technology. Parthasarathy suggests a “more nuanced approach to patents” in the field of biotech, an approach that clearly delineates innovation and the money part of scientific research in general.

Regardless which educational institution is awarded the CRISPR/Cas9 patent, it does appear as if the licensing decisions going forward may be the main factor in telling how the technology will be used in the future, whether further research will be limited, and what type of genetic engineering on humans may be available to the general public.