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East Coast Scientists Win Patent Case Over Medical Research Technology


Scientists affiliated with Harvard and MIT have been battling with colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley over who deserves patents for a revolutionary technology used in medical research. Today, the East Coast scientists won their case in a federal appeals court.

NPR's Richard Harris reports the fight is over a technology that could be the basis of a multibillion-dollar enterprise to correct genetic defects.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The dispute is over who should reap the profits for developing a powerful gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues figured out how to take a natural system found in bacteria and use it in the test tube to precisely rewrite snippets of genetic code.

They filed a patent application in 2012. But instead of granting a patent to them, the U.S. Patent Office issued patents to scientists at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. Those patents cover using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genes in higher organisms, like people. That spurred a patent fight that the University of California has repeatedly lost, including in a federal court today.

JAKE SHERKOW: University of California needs to go back to the patent office now and see what they can salvage from their patent application.

HARRIS: Jake Sherkow, a professor of law at the New York Law School, has been following this high-stakes case closely. He says the Broad Institute now has more than a dozen patents related to CRISPR, and companies that want to use that technology will need to pay to license those patents.

This is important not just because of the money at stake, but because of the clash of these intellectual titans on opposite coasts, Sherkow says.

SHERKOW: But I think it's also important to note that the technology has been rapidly evolving.

HARRIS: And there are now other CRISPR systems other than this patented version, which are useful for gene editing. So these patents may not be the billion-dollar rainmakers that they seemed to be back in 2012 when this whole dispute got started.

Today, the Broad Institute issued a statement saying it's now time for everyone to work together to make sure the technology is widely available. Berkeley, though, said it is, quote, "evaluating other litigation options." Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.