Billions at Stake: UC Berkeley's Day in Court vs. Harvard/MIT Over CRISPR

Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley and Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute. (Cailey Cotner/UC Berkeley and Bryce Vickmark/MIT)

It's called CRISPR-Cas9 — one of the century's biggest scientific breakthroughs in genetic engineering — and now three major universities are battling it out in court over who owns a patent on the revolutionary technology.

On Tuesday, UC Berkeley lawyers defended the university's claim to patent CRISPR in a dispute that went before a panel of judges at the U.S Patent and Trademark headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.  The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is also claiming it owns the rights to CRISPR.

CRISPR is a gene-editing tool that allows scientists to manipulate DNA by snipping out part of a mutated gene and substituting a healthy gene. It has huge implications  from yielding new cancer therapies to correcting genetic disorders to modifying plant and animal DNA.

Editing DNA Using CRISPR

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"If Berkeley wins it means they’re essentially going to control which commercial companies are able to develop the technology going forward and that will be a huge change in the status quo," says New York Law School professor says Jake Sherkow.

Sherkow says billions of dollars could be at stake. Companies that use the technology will likely need to pay royalties to whomever owns it -- Broad or Berkeley. Many start-ups including Addgene -- a biotech non-profit working with Broad -- are already using CRISPR.

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Both UC Berkeley and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard claim to have invented the technology and filed for patents.  

Berkeley filed first and even though Broad filed later, Broad fast-tracked its application, which was approved while Berkeley's was still pending. This is what Berkeley is contesting -- the fact that Broad's application was approved while its own was still under review.

The court has already ruled that the patent will be issued to the scientists who prove the CRISPR technology works in transforming the genes of a particular kind of  cell -- eukaryotic cells, those found in  plants and animals, including humans.

In their research, Broad Institute bioengineer Feng Zhang and his team used eukaryotic cells, whereas UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna used bacteria cells, not eukaryotic cells.

However, Doudna argues that UC Berkeley has a right to the patent because any skilled scientist could apply her team's research technique to eukaryotic cells.

Berkeley's lawyers faced more intense questioning on Tuesday than the Broad's.

"It does speak to some of the judges' skepticism of the University of California's claims," says Sherkow.

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The patent judges could make a decision by February but Sherkow says whichever side loses will likely appeal. So a final resolution may not come until 2018 or 2019.

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