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Dear Harvard, Berkeley, and MIT: don't patent CRISPR

Everyone should benefit from this once-in-a-lifetime discovery

Dan Samorodnitsky


SUNY Buffalo

There is nothing scientists like to talk about more than the purity of their profession. Egalitarian. Transparent. A cut above other professions, if we do say so ourselves.

That isn’t true, of course. Science is a human endeavor, so it’s just as gnarled and bitter (and racist and sexist) as any other business. Nowhere is this clearer than the soulless, ongoing battle over the CRISPR gene editing patent. It's a petty, damaging fight; less a spirited debate about intellectual property than a mud-slinging competition between the rich and powerful to get a little bit richer. But if there were any bravery among the litigants, there wouldn't be a CRISPR patent at all.

The story, though we’re still in the middle of it, has long transcended from real events to legend. Starting in the late 1980s, scientists started discovering weird, repeating sequences of DNA in the genomes of bacteria. Eventually, they determined that these sequences are like a cork board where "wanted" posters for viruses get stapled. If a virus has a sequence of DNA matching a sequence in the bacteria's genome, some bacterial proteins kill the virus. These sequences were named CRISPR.

In 2012, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier – along with the uncredited masses who work for them at UC Berkeley – figured out that Cas9, one of the proteins involved in CRISPR, can be used to edit DNA. They filed for a patent on this technology. But the team only talked about this happening in bacteria without explicitly mentioning that other organisms, like mammals, also have DNA. 

(Yes. Part of the legal battle rests on the idea that a competent scientist wouldn’t jump from the idea of editing one organism to editing a different organism. If that sounds stupid, that’s because it is. It's a part of patent law called "nonobviousness" that is fundamentally incompatible with the way molecular biology works.)

Several months later, at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA, Feng Zhang used a similar approach to edit mammalian cells. His team also filed a patent. In February 2017, the Broad was awarded a patent that covered mammalian, plant, and fungi cells. In July, Berkeley appealed the decision.

They're going to the mat because CRISPR is potentially worth billions of dollars. Zhang helped found Editas Medicine, while Doudna and Charpentier founded three separate companies (Caribou Biosciences, CRISPR Therapeutics, and Intellia Therapeutics). Each of those companies would pay to license the gene editing technology, and in turn they would make money hand-over-fist. Whoever lands the patent, that is.

The problem is, there shouldn’t be a CRISPR patent at all.

The institutions fighting over the patent are latter-day Standard Oil and US Steel. They're toffs in lab coats. The Broad has annual revenue of about $400 million (not including pots of money like a $650 million donation it received from philanthropist Phil Stanley three years ago). MIT and Harvard, Broad's associate universities, have a combined endowment of almost $50 billion, or about the GDP of Croatia. By comparison, Berkeley is a rustic mountain shack: its endowment is only in the single-digit billions. That still makes it one of the wealthiest universities in the world.

Patents supposedly exist so that inventors will create new things without fear of their ideas being stolen before they can reap the benefits of their hard work. Berkeley and the Broad have already reaped the benefits of their researchers' hard work, and so have Doudna, Charpentier, and Zhang themselves. They've brought what will likely become a lifetime of research funds to their labs, which for most scientists is enough.

More importantly to the institutions, they've gained fame and prestige. These are the places where Heroes of CRISPR labored. That's what they need to continue growing their endowments, attracting research funds, and, oh yeah, attracting and educating students. They don't, on top of everything else, need to stifle future innovations by making a money-grab for an innovation that should be openly available to all. CRISPR gene editing has potential for practical uses in so many places – medicine, agriculture, bioremediation, killing mosquitos, the list goes on – that a private patent is a roadblock. The living heart of research science beats a little slower every time scientists lie and stab each other in the back to support their own monetary goals. 

(Here's Michael Eisen describing the moral decay this fight engendered better than I ever could.)

Make the CRISPR patent public. It wouldn't even be setting a new precedent. The Curies deliberately decided not to patent their process for producing radium. Jonas Salk declined to patent the polio vaccine. CERN declined to patent the World Wide Web. Isn’t it wonderful living in a world where the internet is widely available? A world (almost) free of polio? Or do we want to live in a world where most people can't benefit from breakthrough medical procedures, like the recently approved CAR-T leukemia treatment, which costs about $500,000 per treatment?

The most successful, most visible scientists on the planet have the opportunity to do something good and right and pure: to turn their backs on this ridiculous, unnecessary legal battle. Make the CRISPR patent public. Let everyone benefit from a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. It would be easy to keep fighting over this money. Do something terrifying and give up on obscene wealth.

Don't be cowards.