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From Obscure to the Center of Attention

When she began working on CRISPR, the University of California, Berkeley's Jennifer Doudna remembers thinking "this is probably the most obscure thing I ever worked on," as she tells the New York Times.

Now because of that obscure work, Doudna and her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier at Umea University are now embroiled in a patent dispute and an ethical debate.

Doudna and Charpentier published their CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing work in Science in June 2012 and a paper on applying it to human cells in January 2013. But that was four weeks after the Broad Institute's Feng Zhang and Harvard Medical School's George Church each had their own papers on using the approach in human cells. Zhang received the patent as he submitted lab notebooks indicating that he'd been using the tool before Doudna and Charpentier published it. The University of California is appealing the patent decision.

"I really want to see this technology used to help people," Doudna tells the Times. "It would be a shame if the IP situation would block that."

At the same time, the Times notes, CRISPR-based genome editing has kicked up an ethical firestorm as rumors swirled that it was being used to alter human embryos. Indeed, researchers from Sun Yat-sen University reported — to the consternation of many researchers — in Protein & Cell last month that they were able to use the approach, though with limited success, in non-viable human embryos.

While Doudna organized a meeting that resulted in a call for a moratorium on altering embryos, she says that basic research cannot be hampered.

Still, "[t]he idea that you would affect evolution is a very profound thing," she adds.