The battle to own the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing tool

Author:Catherine Jewell - Vijay Shankar Balakrishnan
Position:Communications Division, WIPO - Science and Health Journalist

Millions suffer from devastating genetic disorders like cancer, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia, Huntington’s disease and many others. Imagine the pain and suffering that could be avoided (not to mention the healthcare costs) if we could cure these diseases simply by rewriting the genetic code of patients. This is the promise of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology.


Billed as the most exciting breakthrough in biomedical research since the dawn of genetic engineering in the 1970s, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool has huge scope to improve understanding of human and animal disease and its treatment. It has the potential to revolutionize medicine and agricultural research. The race to develop commercial applications of CRISPR-Cas9 in healthcare, agriculture and industry, however, has thrust the technology, its pioneers, the institutions they work for and a clutch of startups in which they are involved into a high-stakes legal battle over who actually invented it and when. The outcome will determine who controls the technology and where the highly lucrative economic benefits it promises to generate will flow.

The technology and how it came about

Ever since Watson and Crick identified the DNA double helix, scientists have been searching for ways to better understand the role that DNA plays in the genetic make-up of living organisms. The CRISPR tool is a huge step forward. Compared to existing research tools, it offers a relatively quick, easy, reliable and cheap way to target and edit specific genetic sequences.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It is a natural defence mechanism that allows bacterial cells to detect and destroy the viruses that attack them.

The CRISPR mechanism was first identified as a “general purpose gene-editing tool” in a scientific paper published by scientists Erik Sontheimer and Luciano Marrafinni from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA in 2008. The scientists filed for a patent but their application was rejected because they were unable to reduce it to any practical application, Science’s Jon Cohen writes.

But CRISPR really began to create a buzz, with the publication in June 2012, of a scientific paper by Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist then working at the University of Vienna and now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Germany and Umeå University, Sweden, and Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Their paper outlined how CRISPR, with the help of an enzyme called Cas9, can be transformed into a tool to edit genes. Specifically, how CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to cut DNA in a test tube. They filed their first CRISPR-related patent application in May 2012. It is still under review.

Six months later, in January 2013, scientists at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, led by Feng Zhang, reported that they had found a way to use CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the cells of mammals, further fuelling interest in its potential to generate new and more effective medical treatments. The Broad researchers filed their first CRISPR-related patent...

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