Tag Archives: Robert Cook-Deegan

CRISPR patent decision: Harvard’s and MIT’s Broad Institute victorious—for now

I have written about the CRISPR patent tussle (Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley) previously in a Jan. 6, 2015 posting and in a more detailed May 14, 2015 posting. I also mentioned (in a Jan. 17, 2017 posting) CRISPR and its patent issues in the context of a posting about a Slate.com series on Frankenstein and the novel’s applicability to our own time. This patent fight is being bitterly fought as fortunes are at stake.

It seems a decision has been made regarding the CRISPR patent claims. From a Feb. 17, 2017 article by Charmaine Distor for The Science Times,

After an intense court battle, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released its ruling on February 15 [2017]. The rights for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology was handed over to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to an article in Nature, the said court battle was between the Broad Institute and the University of California. The two institutions are fighting over the intellectual property right for the CRISPR patent. The case between the two started when the patent was first awarded to the Broad Institute despite having the University of California apply first for the CRISPR patent.

Heidi Ledford’s Feb. 17, 2017 article for Nature provides more insight into the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

It [USPTO] ruled that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge could keep its patents on using CRISPR–Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. That was a blow to the University of California in Berkeley, which had filed its own patents and had hoped to have the Broad’s thrown out.

The fight goes back to 2012, when Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, Emmanuelle Charpentier, then at the University of Vienna, and their colleagues outlined how CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to precisely cut isolated DNA1. In 2013, Feng Zhang at the Broad and his colleagues — and other teams — showed2 how it could be adapted to edit DNA in eukaryotic cells such as plants, livestock and humans.

Berkeley filed for a patent earlier, but the USPTO granted the Broad’s patents first — and this week upheld them. There are high stakes involved in the ruling. The holder of key patents could make millions of dollars from CRISPR–Cas9’s applications in industry: already, the technique has sped up genetic research, and scientists are using it to develop disease-resistant livestock and treatments for human diseases.

But the fight for patent rights to CRISPR technology is by no means over. Here are four reasons why.

1. Berkeley can appeal the ruling

2. European patents are still up for grabs

3. Other parties are also claiming patent rights on CRISPR–Cas9

4. CRISPR technology is moving beyond what the patents cover

As for Ledford’s 3rd point, there are an estimated 763 patent families (groups of related patents) claiming CAS9 leading to the distinct possibility that the Broad Institute will be fighting many patent claims in the future.

Once you’ve read Distor’s and Ledford’s articles, you may want to check out Adam Rogers’ and Eric Niiler’s Feb. 16, 2017 CRISPR patent article for Wired,

The fight over who owns the most promising technique for editing genes—cutting and pasting the stuff of life to cure disease and advance scientific knowledge—has been a rough one. A team on the West Coast, at UC Berkeley, filed patents on the method, Crispr-Cas9; a team on the East Coast, based at MIT and the Broad Institute, filed their own patents in 2014 after Berkeley’s, but got them granted first. The Berkeley group contended that this constituted “interference,” and that Berkeley deserved the patent.

At stake: millions, maybe billions of dollars in biotech money and licensing fees, the future of medicine, the future of bioscience. Not nothing. Who will benefit depends on who owns the patents.

On Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017], the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board kind of, sort of, almost began to answer that question. Berkeley will get the patent for using the system called Crispr-Cas9 in any living cell, from bacteria to blue whales. Broad/MIT gets the patent in eukaryotic cells, which is to say, plants and animals.

It’s … confusing. “The patent that the Broad received is for the use of Crispr gene-editing technology in eukaryotic cells. The patent for the University of California is for all cells,” says Jennifer Doudna, the UC geneticist and co-founder of Caribou Biosciences who co-invented Crispr, on a conference call. Her metaphor: “They have a patent on green tennis balls; we have a patent for all tennis balls.”

Observers didn’t quite buy that topspin. If Caribou is playing tennis, it’s looking like Broad/MIT is Serena Williams.

“UC does not necessarily lose everything, but they’re no doubt spinning the story,” says Robert Cook-Deegan, an expert in genetic policy at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “UC’s claims to eukaryotic uses of Crispr-Cas9 will not be granted in the form they sought. That’s a big deal, and UC was the big loser.”

UC officials said Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017] that they are studying the 51-page decision and considering whether to appeal. That leaves members of the biotechnology sector wondering who they will have to pay to use Crispr as part of a business—and scientists hoping the outcome won’t somehow keep them from continuing their research.


Happy reading!

Dr. Wei Lu, the memristor, and the cat brain; military surveillance takes a Star Trek: Next Generation turn with a medieval twist; archiving tweets; patents and innovation

Last week I featured the ‘memristor’ story mentioning that much of the latest excitement was set off by Dr. Wei Lu’s work at the University of Michigan (U-M). While HP Labs was the center for much of the interest, it was Dr. Lu’s work (published in Nano Letters which is available behind a paywall) that provoked the renewed interest. Thanks to this news item on Nanowerk, I’ve now found more details about Dr. Lu and his team’s work,

U-M computer engineer Wei Lu has taken a step toward developing this revolutionary type of machine that could be capable of learning and recognizing, as well as making more complex decisions and performing more tasks simultaneously than conventional computers can.

Lu previously built a “memristor,” a device that replaces a traditional transistor and acts like a biological synapse, remembering past voltages it was subjected to. Now, he has demonstrated that this memristor can connect conventional circuits and support a process that is the basis for memory and learning in biological systems.

Here’s where it gets interesting,

In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit and each computing unit is only connected to a handful of neighbors in the circuit. As a result, conventional computers execute code in a linear fashion, line by line, Lu said. They are excellent at performing relatively simple tasks with limited variables.

But a brain can perform many operations simultaneously, or in parallel. That’s how we can recognize a face in an instant, but even a supercomputer would take much, much longer and consume much more energy in doing so.

So far, Lu has connected two electronic circuits with one memristor. He has demonstrated that this system is capable of a memory and learning process called “spike timing dependent plasticity.” This type of plasticity refers to the ability of connections between neurons to become stronger based on when they are stimulated in relation to each other. Spike timing dependent plasticity is thought to be the basis for memory and learning in mammalian brains.

“We show that we can use voltage timing to gradually increase or decrease the electrical conductance in this memristor-based system. In our brains, similar changes in synapse conductance essentially give rise to long term memory,” Lu said.

Do visit Nanowerk for the full explanation provided by Dr. Lu, if you’re so inclined. In one of my earlier posts about this I speculated that this work was being funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) which is part of the US Dept. of Defense . Happily, I found this at the end of today’s news item,

Lu said an electronic analog of a cat brain would be able to think intelligently at the cat level. For example, if the task were to find the shortest route from the front door to the sofa in a house full of furniture, and the computer knows only the shape of the sofa, a conventional machine could accomplish this. But if you moved the sofa, it wouldn’t realize the adjustment and find a new path. That’s what engineers hope the cat brain computer would be capable of. The project’s major funder, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [emphasis mine], isn’t interested in sofas. But this illustrates the type of learning the machine is being designed for.

I previously mentioned the story here on April 8, 2010 and provided links that led to other aspects of the story as I and others have covered it.

Military surveillance

Named after a figure in Greek mythology, Argos Panoptes (the sentry with 100 eyes), there are two new applications being announced by researchers in a news item on Azonano,

Researchers are expanding new miniature camera technology for military and security uses so soldiers can track combatants in dark caves or urban alleys, and security officials can unobtrusively identify a subject from an iris scan.

The two new surveillance applications both build on “Panoptes,” a platform technology developed under a project led by Marc Christensen at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The Department of Defense is funding development of the technology’s first two extension applications with a $1.6 million grant.

The following  image, which accompanies the article at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) website, features an individual who suggests a combination of the Geordi character in Star Trek: The Next Generation with his ‘sensing visor’ and a medieval knight in full armour wearing his helmet with the visor down.

Soldier wearing helmet with hi-res "eyes" courtesy of Southern Methodist University Research

From the article on the SMU site,

“The Panoptes technology is sufficiently mature that it can now leave our lab, and we’re finding lots of applications for it,” said ‘Marc’ Christensen [project leader], an expert in computational imaging and optical interconnections. “This new money will allow us to explore Panoptes’ use for non-cooperative iris recognition systems for Homeland Security and other defense applications. And it will allow us to enhance the camera system to make it capable of active illumination so it can travel into dark places — like caves and urban areas.”

Well, there’s nothing like some non-ccoperative retinal scanning. In fact, you won’t know that the scanning is taking place if they’re successful  with their newest research which suggests the panopticon, a concept from Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century about prison surveillance which takes place without the prisoners being aware of the surveillance (Wikipedia essay here).

Archiving tweets

The US Library of Congress has just announced that it will be saving (archiving) all the ‘tweets’ that have been sent since Twitter launched four years ago. From the news item on physorg.com,

“Library to acquire ENTIRE Twitter archive — ALL public tweets, ever, since March 2006!” the Washington-based library, the world’s largest, announced in a message on its Twitter account at Twitter.com/librarycongress.

“That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions,” Matt Raymond of the Library of Congress added in a blog post.

Raymond highlighted the “scholarly and research implications” of acquiring the micro-blogging service’s archive.

He said the messages being archived include the first-ever “tweet,” sent by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and the one that ran on Barack Obama’s Twitter feed when he was elected president.

Meanwhile, Google made an announcement about another twitter-related development, Google Replay, their real-time search function which will give you data about the specific tweets made on a particular date.  Dave Bruggeman at the Pasco Phronesis blog offers more information and a link to the beta version of Google Replay.

Patents and innovation

I find it interesting that countries and international organizations use the number of patents filed as one indicator for scientific progress while studies indicate that the opposite may be true. This news item on Science Daily strongly suggests that there are some significant problems with the current system. From the news item,

As single-gene tests give way to multi-gene or even whole-genome scans, exclusive patent rights could slow promising new technologies and business models for genetic testing even further, the Duke [Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy] researchers say.

The findings emerge from a series of case studies that examined genetic risk testing for 10 clinical conditions, including breast and colon cancer, cystic fibrosis and hearing loss. …

In seven of the conditions, exclusive licenses have been a source of controversy. But in no case was the holder of exclusive patent rights the first to market with a test.

“That finding suggests that while exclusive licenses have proven valuable for developing drugs and biologics that might not otherwise be developed, in the world of gene testing they are mainly a tool for clearing the field of competition [emphasis mine], and that is a sure-fire way to irritate your customers, both doctors and patients,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, director of the IGSP Center for Genome Ethics, Law & Policy.

This isn’t an argument against the entire patenting system but rather the use of exclusive licenses.