CRISPR Patent War Update—Judge Judy for Geeks

Back in September of this year, In Sickness and Wealth featured the two premier gene editing companies—Editas Medicine and Intellia Therapeutics. While both are losing money, and will for years to come, they are at the forefront of one of the greatest discoveries in all of science – CRISPR. This tool for editing genetic errors in our DNA holds immense promise and life-altering (and lifesaving) possibilities. But mucking up the machinery of CRISPR is one of the great patent battles of all of science and medicine.

The Players: Editas Medicine has ties with the Broad Institute (a joint venture if you will, between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Intellia has “ties” with the University of California at Berkeley. The patent battle is between Broad and the University of California at Berkeley. Feng Zhang is from the Broad Institute and Jennifer Doudna is from UC Berkeley (Although there are many others, Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna are two of the principle scientists that have helped bring CRISPR to its current state)

The Events: Zhang and Broad were granted 13 patents by the U.S. Patent office (USPTO) back in 2014, but in early 2016, the USPTO announced an interference proceeding against some of Broad’s claims related to CRISPR patents that had been awarded to the Institute. The interference proceedings were filed by the lawyers for UC Berkeley and the University of Vienna (where Emmanuel Charpentier, a co-inventor of CRISPR was on staff) to determine who REALLY invented CRISPR.

The Stakes: More than mere egos and bragging rights, at stake are billions, as the winner might gain lucrative licensing contracts for the gene editing technique. This would likely send the shares of the winner dramatically higher. In fact, the stakes are so high the legal fees for Editas have eclipsed $10 million in 2016 alone… a huge sum of money for any company, and an astronomical sum considering Editas has no profits and no hopes of profits anytime soon, and that they just went public 9 months ago. Editas also hired Jenner and Block, one of the most prestigious law firms in the country.

The Outcome: While a decision by the judges at the Patent office is likely at least a year away, the first deliberations begin on December 6th in Alexandria, Virginia. Oral arguments will be presented by each side. The Junior party (Broad and Zheng) and the Senior party (Doudna and UC Berkeley) will have 20 minutes to make their case. They then have a few minutes to rebut the opposite side.

Reams of lab notebooks and documents have also been considered over the past few months in preparation for these deliberations. If you are a diehard molecular biologist, this might be worth attending, and the oral arguments are open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. Watching two of the best scientists in the world, and their lawyers, spar over their claims is the academic version of Judge Judy.

When the decision comes… and no one knows what it will be, it might favor one company over the other, or perhaps they come to some sort of settlement, and both will prosper. Either way, one or both of the stocks might have a significant move. Both are below their IPO prices and both are way below their all-times highs. (Editas is trading around $15 and Intellia is trading around $17.)

Wired magazine editor Sarah Zhang (no relation to Broad’s Feng Zhang mentioned above) put it best when she said:

Putting aside all the lawyers and all the money for a moment, obsessing over finding the one true origin of CRISPR-CAS9 gets science all wrong. Casting the narrative as Doudna vs. Zhang or Berkeley vs. MIT is a misapprehension of history, creativity and innovation. Discovery comes not from a single stroke of genius, but an incremental body of research.”

Stay tuned.

And to all our readers–a Happy Thanksgiving !

Dave and Jodie

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