Doudna Zhang Charpentier

From L-R: Jennifer Doudna, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier

A small number of biotech firms could hold sole control for the future of CRISPR innovation, according to a new study in the journal Science.

Each of the key patent holders for CRISPR has granted exclusive rights to their own spinoff companies, a common means for academic institutions to commercialise their most valuable patents. But legal experts and study authors Jorge Contreras and Jacob Sherkow suggest that this model “could rapidly bottleneck the use of CRISPR technology to discover and develop useful human therapeutics.”

More on this: Broad Institute triumphs over UC Berkeley in CRISPR patent wars

“[T]he exclusive licenses granted to the institutions’ surrogates for human therapeutics limit access to CRISPR as a platform technology,” the authors state, “potentially hindering competition and creating innovation bottlenecks.”

Speaking to STAT, Contreras said, “What leaped out at us was not the exclusivity per se but the fact that the licenses granted to Editas Medicine and Caribou Biosciences are for every gene in the human body and every gene known to humankind.”

Editas Medicine, a surrogate of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has in turn granted Juno Therapeutics an exclusive license to develop “a host of CRISPR therapies – across multiple genes – using… CAR-T technology.”

UC Berkeley filed for its own CRISPR patents, and although these have not been issued yet this has not stopped the University from granting exclusive access to surrogate company Caribou Biosciences. Caribou have in turn granted exclusive rights for human therapeutics to their own spinoff Intellia Therapeutics. 

According to Contreras and Sherkow, this is where the critical problems arise. Such broad licenses in the hands of such a small number of companies enormously restricts access to the technology. Overly broad exclusive licenses, such as those granted to Editas and Caribou, could hinder research into potential therapeutic targets that neither company has “the bandwidth to pursue”.

“In other instances, overly broad exclusive licenses may hinder research into socially valuable—but unprofitable—therapeutics”. Rare diseases, or those that disproportionately affect disadvantaged populations or regions, are likely to be hardest hit by the bottleneck.

Contreras and Sherkow conclude by calling on the institutions involved – in this case UC Berkeley and the Broad Institute – to reconsider how they license their patents to surrogate companies. “Those institutions should ensure that any exclusive licenses are narrowly drawn to specific genes, to maximize competition in the development of the revolutionary technology they have created.”

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