Patent dispute no obstacle to gene editing advances: Tang laureates

  • Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, 2016 Tang Prize Laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science
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Taipei, Sept. 24 (CNA) Locked in a patent battle over their unique genome editing technology, the three 2016 Tang Prize biopharmaceutical science winners said Saturday they do not see the dispute as personal or as an obstacle to future biopharmaceutical research using the method.

Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna and Feng Zhang (張鋒) said in separate interviews after presenting their work to a local audience that they were excited about the development of CRISPR/Cas9 system and its possible applications regardless of the ongoing patent row.

"We each came to this technology from very different backgrounds," said Doudna, adding that the patent dispute is between the universities they are affiliated with rather than individual scientists.

Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute and Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley are vying with Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the right to patent the CRISPR/Cas9 system.

The patent row has heated up in recent years with possibly hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars at stake thanks to the introduction of CRISPR/Cas9 system, a genome editing platform that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by cutting out, replacing or adding parts to the DNA sequence.

But the controversy did not seem to affect the Tang Prize awardees when they delivered speeches on the same stage. They also did not show any animosity toward each other when asked about the patent issue.

"The intellectual property around CRISPR/Cas9 has not hindered the usage and the development of the technology by everyone working in the field of life sciences," Charpentier said.

In fact, the scientist said there has been vast interest in the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which she described as cheap and easy to use, advantages that could pave the way for its further development.

"Very quickly, you can see that the technology has been adopted and used not only by scientists working in the academic field but very fast by scientists working in the biotech field and the pharmaceutical industry," she said.

Charpentier said that the speed at which biotech companies have been funded and the speed at which everyone jumped on the technology has been quite unique.

"It was like everyone was convinced right at the beginning that it would be very useful and everyone was in need of this technology," she said.

Added Doudna: "I think the good news is even though there is this ongoing patent dispute, it hasn't stopped any companies or academic researchers from pursuing the applications that they think are important."

Zhang echoed a similar sentiment, saying that he has left the patent issue to his lawyer to better focus on the future potential applications of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology.

"I am just focused on the science...and moving the science forward and making something that is useful for others," Zhang said.

On April 2014, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted the patent to Zhang, who applied for it seven months later than Charpentier and Doudna, according to foreign news reports.

It is believed that Zhang paid an extra fee to fast-track his own application, shortening the process to fewer than six months, and was ultimately awarded the patent.

It usually takes at least a year for the office to issue a patent.

Another controversy lies in the criterion for acquiring a patent. In 2013, the patent office changed its rules from the old "first-to-invent" to a "first-to-file" basis in hopes of ending disputes that turn on minute interpretations of lab records or personal notes, according the Los Angeles Times.

Charpentier and Doudna published their paper about CRISPR in Science magazine in June 2012, while Zhang had his published in the same magazine in January 2013.

Foreign news reports indicate that Charpentier and Doudna filed their application on March 15, 2013, a day before the new "first-to-file" patent rules went into effect. Zhang's team filed theirs on October 15, 2013, but claimed they had invented the technology on December 12, 2012, under the old rules.

The three scientists, who won the Tang Prize for "the development of CRISPR-Cas9 as a breakthrough genome editing platform that promises to revolutionize biomedical research and disease treatment," will be presented with their awards on Sunday.