Legal showdown over gene-editing tool begins

The discovery and subsequent developments within gene-editing are believed to represent some of the biggest biotechnology advances in recent history. It has been a controversial topic across the globe, with ethics often entering into the equation. Whilst many scientists refer to it as the 'holy grail', enabling us to treat deadly genetic diseases in the future, others worry it is a slippery slope which could lead to editing human embryos.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a breakthrough, gene editing tool that can cut out and replace cells' DNA sequences, allowing for easier genetic engineering. The IP surrounding this technology was largely discussed in 2015, with two teams of top US scientists claiming they were first to invent it.

In a move to reach a final decision over this debate, on Monday the USPTO announced the beginning of a patent interference period, where they will aim to come to the conclusion on who was the first to invent.

A panel of three patent experts will make the final decision, establishing who will be allowed to use the technology and under what terms. Interferences are well known for their complexity and length, with this case looking like it will be no exception. All patent claims and issues related to the case are being reviewed, meaning the ultimate conclusion will see one team lose all rights to anything they created, while the other will reap rewards worth millions.

Jennifer Doudna at the University of California will have her pending patents reviewed against the issued patents of Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute and MIT.

The reason for the confusion over who owns the technology comes down to the USPTO originally processing their patents on a 'first to invent' basis, with the winning inventor being the one who could simply prove they invented their product first.

However, the USPTO has since changed this process and now works off a 'first to file' basis, preventing any future confusions. Doudna's team were the first to file back in 2013, and Zhang's team was the first to be granted in April 2014.

The official interference document gives us some indication as to what way the decision might swing, as it refers to Doudna as the 'Senior Party', and Zhang as the 'Junior Party.' However only time will tell, and as in all of these cases, anything could happen.

Watch this space.