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Will the Owner Please Step Forward

The CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing approach has taken the biotech world by storm, but as MIT's Technology Review reports, there are questions as to who owns the approach.

The University of California, Berkeley's Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research received the Breakthrough Prize last month for the approach, Tech Review's Antonio Regalado notes, though the Broad Institute's Feng Zhang received a patent last April covering the approach.

"The intellectual property in this space is pretty complex, to put it nicely," Rodger Novak, CEO of the Basel-based startup CRISPR Therapeutics cofounded by Charpentier, says. "Everyone knows there are conflicting claims."

Zhang and Doudna cofounded Editas, which has licensed the technology from the Broad, Regalado notes. Doudna, though, broke off her relationship with the company after Zhang's patent came out, and she filed her own claim, which she licensed to Intellia. Charpentier, meanwhile, sold her rights from the same patent application as Doudna, to CRISPR Therapeutics.

There are also complications surrounding the scientific credit, Regalado notes.

In summer 2012 Doudna, Charpentier, and their team published a paper showing the CRISPR/Cas9 system — a bacterial defense mechanism that chops up the DNA of invading viruses — could be harnessedas a programmable DNA editing tool. The following January, Zhang and Harvard University's George Church reported that it could work on human cells, and Doudna published similar results shortly thereafter, Regalado says.

But Zhang says he learned little from Doudna and Charpentier's work. To support his patent claim, he submitted pictures of his lab notebooks that he says indicates he had the approach working in early 2012, before Doudna and Charpentier.

"All I can say is that we did it in my lab with Jennifer Doudna," Charpentier tells Regalado. "Everything here is very exaggerated because this is one of those unique cases of a technology that people can really pick up easily, and it's changing researchers' lives. Things are happening fast, maybe a bit too fast."

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