Saturday, February 06, 2016

Big Money and Big Science: The Battle Over CRISPR

CRISPR: It’s simply a billion dollar matter of learning more or earning more. At least that’s the view of a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

“A case of big money shaping science” said the headline on Michael Hiltzik’s piece on the website of California’s largest circulation newspaper. He said the tussle over the patent may be the 21st century’s “era-defining patent fight.”

Hiltzik wrote:
“The contestants are the University of California and the Broad Institute, a Harvard- and MIT-affiliated research foundation endowed by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad. At stake are the rights to a breakthrough gene-editing technology known as CRISPR — and more precisely, to billions of dollars in royalties and license fees likely to flow to whichever claimant prevails before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (and in the almost inevitable appeals in court).”

CRISPR is a new technique that allows relatively easy editing of human genes. Its potential use, with the possibility of permanent changes in the human race, has triggered an international hooha. Many leading scientists are calling for a moratorium until all the ramifications are fully explored.

The $3 billion California stem cell agency last Thursday held a day-long conference on the issue and announced it would hold a series of hearings into the matter, raising the likelihood of changes in research standards for California stem cell researchers.

The patent dispute, replete with the use of what Hiltzik notes are “outdated legal standards,” involves who was first with CRISPR -- Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley or Feng Zhang from Broad.

Both researchers say the patent fight is a distraction. But Hiltzik also wrote,

“Other scientists see the battle as a distasteful example of the influence of big money — and the race for Nobel credit — on basic research. ‘Having prizes and patents involved has transformed what should be one of the greatest success stories for basic research into this nasty, catty fight in which people are behaving poorly,’ says Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen, a colleague of Doudna's and the head of a lab that stands to gain resources if UC wins the patent fight.

“He added on his blog: ‘Neither Berkeley nor MIT should have patents on CRISPR, since it is a disservice to science and the public for academic scientists to ever claim intellectual property in their work.’ Indeed, neither the Doudna nor Zhang teams were the first to identify CRISPR or to use it; the history dates back as far as 1987 and involves researchers in Japan, Spain, Chicago, Quebec and other places’”

Hiltzik, author of the well-received book, "Big Science," said the real question involving CRISPR is whether "the future of the technology will be guided by the need to learn more or the opportunity to earn more."

Hiltzik’s column illuminated the enormous financial imperatives involved in the use of the CRISPR, which are publicly largely a side issue at sessions involving such agencies as California’s stem cell research effort and some international groups. However, the National Academy of Sciences is holding a session next Wednesday that includes a panel devoted to the CRISPR industry. Alta Charo, chair of the academy meeting, told the stem cell agency last week that she hopes that the scope of the market and its financial implications will be explored in more detail at the session, which will be webcast live.

Charo said she hopes for recommendations from her group by the end of the year concerning genetic modification of human embryos. The stem cell agency appears to be moving at the same sort of speed. All of which is a good thing since the lure of huge revenues will certainly stimulate even faster action by profit-hungry companies.
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