The CRISPR Patent Debate

August 19, 2016

The debate over who has control over patents for CRISPR gene-editing technology came to a head on August 17, 2016 after an email was released from a former graduate student at the Broad Institute accusing Harvard-MIT of wrongfully securing patents to the technology.

The debate over who has control over patents for CRISPR gene-editing technology came to a head on August 17, 2016 after an email was released from a former graduate student at the Broad Institute accusing Harvard-MIT of wrongfully securing patents to the technology. Shuailiang Lin, a former graduate student at the Broad Institute, made strong accusations against his former employer, stating that Feng Zhang and other researchers at the Broad Institute did not finalize their CRISPR research before allegedly reading a paper written by Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and collaborators.

“Based on the careful inspection of the Patent Application Information Retrieval of Broad’s patent files, I found Feng is not only unfair to me but also to the science history,” Lin said in the email. “The 15-page declaration of his and Le Cong’s luciferase data is mis- and overstated to change the examiner’s decision, which seems to be a joke. I will try to defend the truth.”

The convoluted debate over who should have control of CRISPR patents has been an ongoing battle between the Broad Institute and scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Vienna, and Emmanuelle Charpentier. In 2012, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier published a paper on CRISPR technology and later that year filed for a patent. Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute filed for a patent on the technology in 2012, which was accepted by United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2014. The Broad Institute currently holds 13 of the 28 patents issued by the USPTO for CRISPR/Cas9 technology, the institute said in a press announcement. In January 2016, Berkeley disputed Broad Institutes claim to the patents, in an effort to determine who was the first to discover the technology.  

In the email, Lin asserts that without the help of Doudna’s paper, Zhang would have been unable to complete his CRISPR research. “We did not work it out before seeing your paper, it’s really a pity,” Lin writes. According to the MIT Technology Review, Lin is listed as an inventor in one of Broad’s earliest patent applications. Lin sent the email to Doudna as a job application, and says he would be able to “help the CRISPR patent interference process.” Lin appears willing to divulge more information related to the patents, saying “I am willing to give more details and records if you are interested or whoever is interested to clear the truth.”

In a press announcement, the Broad Institute questioned the credibility of Lin’s email, saying that he had just been denied a position to return to the Broad Institute to work. Additionally, his visa was scheduled to expire on March 1, 2015-several days after sending the email to Doudna. The MIT Technology Review notes that both Berkeley and the Broad Institute appear to be evenly matched in the patent battle, based on documents released from USPTO. Earlier this month, STAT News reported that the legal battle for patent rights to CRISPR is becoming costly. EDITAS Medicine, which licensed a CRISPR patent from the Broad Institute, said that it has incurred $10.9 million in legal fees.

Source: Broad Institute, MIT Technology Review, USPTO