Crispr picture: Court ruling puts Zhang at the vanguard of the gene manipulation technology. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Crispr picture: Court ruling puts Zhang at the vanguard of the gene manipulation technology. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What many have described as the biotechnology trial of the century came to a close Wednesday, with the Broad Institute winning the patent to a popular gene-editing process known as Crispr/Cas-9.

The legal battle over who really invented the technology pitted Zhang Feng of the Broad Institute — a research facility affiliated with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — against French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley.

Both sides claimed to have developed Crispr-Cas9, which allows scientists to edit stretches of the genome by removing, adding or changing pieces of the DNA sequence. Scientists say the technology has the potential to cure diseases but also raises ethical questions, particularly when it comes to the prospect of forever altering the human race.

Charpentier and Doudna have won multiple prizes in the past four years and were widely considered to have discovered this gene-editing technique. Their work was first published in the journal Science in June 2012. They described using Crispr with simple organisms such as bacteria. They filed for a patent in May 2012.

The Broad Institute, with Zhang, filed a patent request in December 2012 for a successful test of Crispr with eukaryotes — more advanced organisms whose cells contain a nucleus with a membrane and which are on the same evolutionary branch as humans.

On Wednesday, the US Patent and Trademark Office ruled in favor of the Broad Institute.

“This important decision affirms the inventiveness of the Broad’s work in translating the biology of the natural world into fundamental building blocks to create unprecedented medicines,” said a statement by Katrine Bosley, president and chief executive officer of Editas Medicine, which has an exclusive license on the Broad Institute’s patent for human-therapy applications.

The Atlantic magazine described Editas Medicine as “the biggest winner.”

“Assuming the patent decision does not change, Editas will be the major player in human Crispr therapies in the foreseeable future,” the Atlantic said.

Editas Medicine was continuing to invest in “genome editing therapies for patients suffering from genetically defined and genetically treatable diseases,” Bosley said.

Massachusetts-based Editas Medicine’s stock price soared Wednesday on the NASDAQ, gaining 28.84% to US$24.30.

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