The CRISPR-Cas Patent Dispute Continues

Who was the first to discover CRISPR-Cas9? Who knows?

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I think for most of us, we like to think of science as an universal enterprise in which we all work together to incrementally understand the nature of the world we live in. And for most of the time that’s quite accurate. The other times…well, it can be a battlefield, with lines drawn in the sand and everything riding on things less to do with the lab and more to do with the courtroom.

This is especially true when hefty sums of biotech royalties ride on questions of who first invented and consequently owns the rights to hugely transformative discoveries. Such is the ongoing US patent dispute over the discovery of CRISPR-Cas for use in genome engineering. At the heart lies the question of who was the first to demonstrate that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used for genomic engineering. But is it the demonstration of mechanism or the application that defines primacy? That’s the question that the US patent office now has to answer, as it recently granted a request to re-review it's decision over who should be awarded the patent for this technology.

And just to make the situation a bit more uncomfortable, a recent perspective discussing the history of the CRISPR-Cas discovery has generated its own controversy, with questions raised over potential conflicts of interest and anecdotal inaccuracies, thrown all the more into sharper relief because a monetary windfall (and also likely a Nobel Prize) all ride on this one question of timeline.

Obviously, I have no horse at this race, so I'm watching (and reporting) from the sidelines. But if I had to offer one opinion, it’s this: I’m so, so glad I don’t work at the US patent office.

Michael Chao

Project Manager, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

I first developed an interest in bacterial pathogenesis while at Cornell University. I then earned my PhD in Biomedical and Biological Sciences from Harvard University in Eric Rubin’s laboratory, studying cell wall remodelling in Mycobacterium tuberculosis. From 2012-2015, I continued my training as a postdoctoral fellow in Matthew Waldor’s lab at Harvard Medical School, investigating the role of DNA methylation on regulating fundamental cellular processes in Vibrio cholerae.