Drama in Biotech – CRISPR Patent Fight

You might have heard of CRISPR-Cas9, which is also known as “molecular scissors”. The technology allows researchers to cut DNA at a specific location and modify existing genes. Applications of this technology include genetically modifying mosquitoes so that they don’t carry malaria parasites, eliminating HIV in infected mice, etc. No doubt that CRISPR-Cas9 had a transformative impact in the area of biotechnology.


However, when it comes to patent and commercialization, things can get a bit more dramatic. The patent fight for CRISPR-Cas9 developed around 2012 and 2013, both in the U.S. and in Europe, Broad Institute applied for the patent 7 months after UC Berkeley applied for the patent. And in 2016 in the U.S., UC Berkely and the Broad Institute launched priority proceedings to be granted exclusive rights to CRISPR-Cas9 in the form of a patent for invention.


In this particular case, the question was whether UC Berkeley’s patent application for the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in any living cell made the Broad Institute’s more narrowly worded invention, the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in eukaryotic cells (i.e., animal and plant cells) in particular, obvious and thus invalid. The initial appeal in 2017 ruled that there was no conflict between the two since the researchers described their respective inventions in different ways. The main difference between the two is that UC Berkeley researchers focused on their invention applying to all DNAs, but the Zhang team at the Broad Institute mainly focused on eukaryotic cells.

The second interference was brought up by UC Berkeley directing to the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. This led the U.S. Patent Office to directly compare the claims from competing inventors to see which group has provided the best evidence for this area. The decision later ruled that Broad Institute has priority in the use of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique in animal and plant cells where arguably the greatest potential benefits of the technique lie.


So far, the Broad Institue had won the patent fight in 2022, however, Europe seems to take on a favoring stance for UC Berkeley, which further complicates the commercial landscape of biotech companies that want to commercialize their products globally. Many companies include Caribou Biosciences, Intellica Therapeutics, Editas Medicine, etc. The same applies to many Canadian companies. There are about 1200 pending patent applications related to CRISPR. Read more here.