Gene-Editing Technology for Free? MIT, Harvard, UC in Heated Debate to Privatize CRISPR

Dec 12, 2016 06:53 AM EST

We may be approaching a time when custom-made humans exist, depending on how current debates on open science goes. The week for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria has opened for quite the heated debate.

This marks the historic "fight" for the patent rights to the CRISPR gene-editing technology, famous (or infamous?) for quite the unimaginable feats for the past few months.

CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a revolutionary gene-editing tool that allows scientists to almost literally "edit" DNA. Its unparalleled ease and precision have allowed researchers to unlock various new possibilities in the realm of genetics.

However, it appears two institutions -- MIT and Harvard's Broad Institute and University of California, Berkeley -- are locked in a cage match that can decide whether or not CRISPR will be privatized.

According to Science Magazine, on one hand, there's Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute where Feng Zhang was the first to file patents using CRISPR to edit eukaryote cells. On the other corner is Jennifer Doudna of University of California, Berkeley claiming she discovered CRISPR before Zhang filed his patent papers.

Regardless, if one of them wins, they emerge not only with billions of credit in licensing fees, but they will also have total control over one of the world's most important new discoveries. They would be able to alter plants and animals in very dramatic fashion, to the point of creating designer livestock, and develop therapies for cancer and other diseases. 

But not if open science advocates do not let them.

According to CBC, Alec Edwards of the University of Toronto thinks privatizing CRISPR can be "terrible" for the medical community. He said this can slow down discovery, the uptake of technology, and the ability to make cures.

Edwards is known for advocating publicly funded science in Toronto for more than 10 years. He has given away volumes of scientific data that can be transformed into new drugs.

His approach is also radical in the public sector research field, especially in the Structural Genomics Consortium where he heads a group of 300 scientists funded by multiple public and private organizations.

However, Edwards is not the only one advocating in open science. The Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University has sworn off patenting their research into neurological disorders such as Parkinson's, ALS, and glioma brain tumors.

Guy Rouleau, director of the institute, said this is not because of the sake of being "open," but to do what's necessary to get treatments faster.

Unfortunately, the patenting race is something that has been going on for a while. Governments and universities are known to be pressuring academic researchers to patent everything they discover.

However, Edwards still believes the original purpose of patenting technologies is to "get" them out and help develop technologies and medicines to benefit society. 

Interestingly, CRISPR did not need the help of patenting in this regard, as universities have immediately picked up the method after it was introduced.

Sadly, Edwards said the entire patent debacle offers "nothing but incentive" to the institutions involved and creates uncertainty. 

According to Nature, the potential patent will allow the winning institution access to the technology for 20 years, and similar patents may be issued in the European Union and Australia.  

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