Every year, people try to predict who will win a Nobel Prize in science. This year, Thompson Reuters named two scientists for the discovery of a powerful technology for editing genomes, known as CRISPR/Cas9.
Problem is, they’re not the only scientists claiming credit for the discovery.
Molecular biologists Jennifer Doudna, of UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Germany, were nominated by Thompson Reuters for their pioneering work on CRISPR.
But Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute and MIT, owns the patents for the technique, and claims he discovered it independently. Doudna’s team filed for a patent first, however, and now the two groups’ lawyers are locked in a fierce intellectual property battle.
The final decision of who should get the patents will come down to who can prove they were first to invent the technology. And the stakes are high – both groups have licensed the technology to spinoff companies, and the patents could be worth millions of dollars.
A powerful tool with high stakes
CRISPR, which refers to short stretches of repeated DNA, were originally discovered in E. coli bacteria by Japanese scientist Yoshizumi Ishino in 1987, but their function was a mystery.
Later, scientists discovered that these repeated sequences contained DNA from viruses. Researchers then found a set of related genes, which encoded molecules that act like scissors to cut a virus’s DNA. The bacterium would then paste that viral DNA into its own genome, so it could recognize the threat and fight it off in the future.
Doudna and Charpentier had independently been studying a CRISPR system in bacteria that involved the protein Cas9, which cuts DNA very precisely. The two scientists decided to pair up, and published a highly cited study in the journal Science in 2012 that demonstrated this technology could be used to edit human cells.
Since then, CRISPR/Cas9 has been used in a wide range of organisms, including baker’s yeast, flies, mice (by Zhang and his team) and monkeys. Earlier this year, Chinese scientists even used it to modify human embryos, which were tweaked so they couldn’t survive.
Doudna, Charpentier, and others quickly realized the technique’s potential, which could allow scientists to easily and accurately cut-and-paste the genes of any organism. The method could be used to fix defective genes that cause disease, or even to enhance a gene – prompting some to worry it might be used to create “designer babies.”
The controversy heats up
Zhang – the MIT and Harvard Broad Institute scientist who claims he also discovered the CRISPR technique – was awarded the first patent for the technique in April 2014. But the adminstrators of California’s public university system (where Doudna is from) have petitioned the US Patent and Trademark Office to reconsider the ownership of ten patents issued to MIT and the Harvard Broad Institute.
A decision has not been reached. Adding fuel to the fire, Zhang just discovered an alternative to Cas9 that may work even better for editing genes.
The Nobel winner could be announced before the patent office reaches a decision, however. And if the Nobel committee honors one group of scientists while the patent office honors another, it wouldn’t be the first time.
The chemistry Nobel will be announced on Wednesday October 7, after 11:45 a.m. local time in Sweden. And whatever happens then, you can be sure we haven’t heard the last of the CRISPR saga.