Why UC Berkeley deserves the main CRISPR patent

crispr nihSome months back a USPTO court issued a ruling that most interpreted as meaning the Broad Institute had won the so-called ‘CRISPR patent battle’ in the U.S. and that UC Berkeley, Jennifer Doudna, and Emmanuelle Charpentier had lost. Now this week Berkeley has appealed that ruling. It seems the odds are against Berkeley prevailing in its appeal, but frankly Berkeley deserves the main CRISPR patent and Broad doesn’t. Interestingly, the European Patent Office apparently agrees with this view and disagrees with the USPTO. Update: note that the Berkeley patent application itself also mentions eukaryotic use.

At the heart of the original decision that favored the Broad was an illogical argument by the USPTO court. They said that the research of Doudna and Charpentier did not make the work that the Broad later patented based on the work of Feng Zhang obvious. In my view Doudna and Charpentier’s work in fact did render Zhang’s later work a totally obvious next step.

Why?

A hypothetical scenario can help to illustrate this.

Let’s say a colleague tells me something along the lines of “Hey, I found this novel nuclease we are calling ‘DUH1’ that cuts DNA in a nifty new way in a prokaryote and in a test tube” and they publish that. Of course, after that many people are going to want to try DUH1 in eukaryotes. Duh, it’s a no-brainer, right? It’s therefore bizarre that the USPTO would think the step to try CRISPR in eukaryotes was not obvious after Doudna & colleagues groundbreaking work.

Flip it around too and imagine that the hypothetical colleague who discovered DUH1 only reported that it worked in vivo and then someone else was allowed to patent that DUH1 could be used in vitro on plasmid DNA in a tube. Does that make any sense? Someone else could patent the in vitro use of DUH1 over the inventor who discovered DUH1 first and reported how it worked in vivo? Even if was a bit of a challenge to get DUH1 to work in vitro, I don’t think that makes sense.

Back to the real CRISPR world, does the in vivo to in vitro or in vitro to in vivo or prokaryote to eukaryote “directionality” of the research flow matter for a patent? I’m not sure, but in theory it shouldn’t in this case as the next steps were obvious. How obvious?

If you read Doudna and Charpentier’s seminal Science paper, the abstract concludes with a statement for all the world suggesting the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for genomic editing in general and I took that to mean in eukaryotes too:

“Our study reveals a family of endonucleases that use dual-RNAs for site-specific DNA cleavage and highlights the potential to exploit the system for RNA-programmable genome editing.”

and the paper itself ends:

“We propose an alternative methodology based on RNA-programmed Cas9 that could offer considerable potential for gene-targeting and genome-editing applications.”

You’re telling me that these statements were meant to be restricted to only prokaryotes or DNA in a tube? Really? Nope.

Strangely the patent court apparently felt that Doudna’s public statements about it being a challenge to get CRISPR to work in eukaryotes was a big deal in rendering their decision, but again technical difficulty does not equate to an idea being non-obvious. For sure kudos to Zhang, who was technically speaking quite adept to get the CRISPR-Cas9 system to work well in eukaryotes quickly, but even if the Broad ironed out key technical kinks in getting CRISPR-Cas9 to work well inside eukaryotic cells that still doesn’t justify them having the main CRISPR patent. It’s just not conceptually or technically different enough from the earlier Doudna and Charpentier work. To me it’s not even a close call, but USPTO got it totally wrong.

Another exercise reinforces my argument. Can anyone imagine Zhang publishing his first CRISPR work (which by the way cites and heavily relies on the works of Doudna and Charpentier) if he didn’t have those earlier key papers of Doudna and Charpentier to build on moving forward? No way. Could Doudna and/or Charpentier and others have gotten CRISPR to work in eukaryotes without Zhang? Yes and almost certainly it was already inevitable before Zhang even published his key Science paper.

For all these reasons, Berkeley deserves the main patent based on simple common sense, but whether things will turn out that way longer term seems far less clear.

Some may say that no one should get to patent CRISPR, but these days that’s probably a naive perspective. For more on the history of patenting (or lack thereof) of nucleases and in particular restriction enzymes, this is an interesting read.