One of the most important genetic technologies developed in recent years is now patented, and researchers are wondering what they will and won’t be allowed to do with the powerful method for editing the genome.
On Tuesday, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard announced that it had been granted a patent covering the components and methodology for CRISPR—a new way of making precise, targeted changes to the genome of a cell or an organism. CRISPR could revolutionize biomedical research by giving scientists a more efficient way of re-creating disease-related mutations in lab animals and cultured cells; it may also yield an unprecedented way of treating disease (see “Genome Surgery”).
The patent, issued just six months after its application was filed, covers a modified version of the CRISPR-Cas9 system found naturally in bacteria, which microbes use to defend themselves against viruses. The patent also covers methods for designing and using CRISPR’s molecular components.
The patent describes how the tools could be used to treat diseases, and lists many specific conditions from epilepsy, to Huntington’s, to autism, and macular degeneration. One of the most exciting possibilities for CRISPR is its potential to treat genetic disorders by directly correcting mutations on a patient’s chromosomes. That would enable doctors to treat diseases that cannot be addressed by more traditional methods, a goal already set by a startup cofounded by Zhang called Editas Medicine (further reading: “New Genome-Editing Method Could Make Gene Therapy More Precise and Effective”).
Another founder of Editas, Jennifer Doudna, and her institute, the University of California, have a pending patent application for CRISPR technology. How that west coast application will be affected is not yet clear. It’s also unclear what impact the Broad’s claims on the technology will have on its commercial use and on basic research.
Chelsea Loughran, an intellectual property litigation lawyer who has been following CRISPR over the last year, says that lots of people are already using CRISPR and it’s not clear if it will now become harder for them to do that. “All of that is in the hands of MIT and the Broad,” she says.
While MIT, Harvard, and the Broad all jointly own the CRISPR patents announced yesterday, the Broad’s technology licensing office is managing decisions about who will get licenses to use the technology, says Lita Nelsen, director of the MIT Technology Licensing Office.