The field of biotechnology, especially in regards to human genomes, has been expanding at a rapid pace. In contrast, the legal system has struggled to keep up with increasing patent requests and other issues that have arisen as a result of this sudden growth. One popular development that has recently re-emerged in the press is CRISPR. As the debate over the patentability of CRISPR continues, it becomes important to understand what it is and what the future holds for this technology.
What is CRISPR?
Short for the specialized stretch of DNA known as CRISPR-Cas9 (in which CRISPR is an acronym for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”), CRISPR is a simple but effective means of editing the human genome. Using CRISPR, scientists can alter the function of genes and edit sequences of DNA. The Cas9 protein acts with a scissor-like function as it possesses the ability to cut DNA strands. Cas9 is commonly found as a natural defense mechanism in bacteria and archaea; to defend the organism from foreign invaders, the Cas9 protein attacks the invader by cutting and destroying its DNA. Applying this same practice to larger organism can allow scientists to edit genes. The potential for this application could include correcting defects that occur on a genetic level, improving crop health, and preventing the spread of diseases.
CRISPR is not the first genome-editing tool, however, it has been deemed easier to use and more effective than its predecessor, TALENS. As with all genome-editing technology, there are some ethical questions raised in regards to the practice, resulting in continued debates over whether the technology can be patented and if the technology should be used on humans. The ethical issues relate primarily to the modification of unborn children to create ideal individuals according to parental specifications.
CRISPR Patent History
In 2012, Jennifer Douda and her team of the University of California, Berkeley filed a patent application for the CRISPR technology to alter genes in vitro (occurring outside of a living organism); later that year, members of the Board Institute of MIT and Harvard filed a similar application pertaining to the application of CRISPR technology in eukaryotic cells in vivo (occurring within a living organism). Ultimately, UC Berkeley claimed that the Board’s patent simply accounted for an extension of their patented technology, and the patent office granted UC Berkeley an all-encompassing patent that awarded them credit for the technology. The debate is still on-going, however, as the technology continues to develop.
Since then, several additional patents pertaining to CRISPR technology have been issued to various institutions.
As CRISPR technology advances, the possibilities are numerous and promising. Already, scientists have edited genes to cure blindness as well as muscular dystrophy. This technology may also be used to cure HIV, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and more.