Bioethics Blogs

CRISPR dispute raises bigger patent issues that we’re not talking about

A patent has far-reaching implications for future research. ReubenGBrewer, CC BY-SA

The worlds of science, technology and patent law eagerly await the U.S. government’s decision on who deserves patents on what many have referred to as the biotechnology invention of the century: the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique.

Scientists hail CRISPR/Cas9 as more accurate and efficient than other, now-traditional genetic engineering methods. As a result, CRISPR has generated worldwide debate about how it could accelerate the manipulation of plants, animals and even human beings at the molecular level. That some DNA modifications can be passed on to future generations raises particular concern.

But the patent dispute, focusing on whether scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard or those at University of California, Berkeley invented the technology, seems far from these ethical concerns. Each institution asserts that its scientists are the rightful inventors – and therefore the owners of the CRISPR/Cas9 patents. As proof, the scientists are submitting their published articles, laboratory notebooks and affidavits to the US Patent and Trademark Office, which will make a decision in the next few months.

This decision will influence whose name will go down in the history books, and perhaps also who will receive a Nobel Prize. And it will determine which institution will make millions by licensing use of the patented invention to researchers at other universities and companies.

But amid all the breathless anticipation, we’ve been ignoring two important lessons from the CRISPR/Cas9 patent dispute: patent systems no longer fit the realities of how science works, and patents give their owners significant control over the fate and shape of technologies.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.