For almost three years, two heavyweight American colleges have been battling over a patent claim on the rights to use gene editing system Crispr-Cas9, which, apart from revolutionizing genetics and potentially helping cure deadly diseases, could potentially yield billions of dollars in biotech research funds and investments. The reason for both Berkeley and MIT locking horns is simple: timing.
Berkeley were the first to submit a patent for the use of the system in 2014, but a similar patent lodged on the East Coast by MIT after the fact got approved first, leaving the California-based college to appeal the decision and ask that the decision be reversed. On Wednesday, the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board finally answered their motion, but the ruling has left many confused.
The Board decided that UC Berkeley would retain rights to use Crispr-Cas9 in any living cell, whilst MIT were given the right to use the system in eukaryotic cells – essentially plants and animals. Co-inventor of Crispr and UC geneticist Jennifer Doundna explains it in simpler terms:
“They have a patent on green tennis balls; we have a patent for all tennis balls.”
Whilst Doundna’s comparison might seem as though Berkeley has won the patent war, investors seem to disagree, arguing that UC was hoping to use Crispr-Cas9 in eukaryotes, which was their main claim within their patent, but the Patent Board’s decision to award that claim to MIT would make the Massachusetts-based college the overall victor. As Wired’s Adam Rogers and Eric Niiler put it:
“If (Berkeley) is playing tennis, it’s looking like MIT is Serena Williams.”
However, only time will tell. Understandably, Berkeley is still deciding whether to appeal, an option that could delay further research into Crispr-Cas9 and continue to put the biotech market and their investments on hold. Which might not be a bad idea, considering investors and researchers had been lining up to back either one of the institutions, but now, confusion remains as to which side got the better deal, and therefore who will get the funding. Until Berkeley makes their finals decision, it seems as though the future of medicine and bioscience will be put on standby.