In an editorial for Nature, associate professor of law at New York Law School Jacob Sherkow argues that the CRISPR–Cas9 patent battle shows how overzealous efforts to commercialize technology can damage science.

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Does the increasing commercial focus of research institutions clash with their broader educational aims? In an editorial for Nature, Jacob Sherkow expresses concerns that “increasing the focus on commercialization is that educational institutions will view scientific research as a path to profit, above all else.” 

“It is not hard to imagine that patent disputes might lead to university administrators pushing certain views on their scientists, denigrating collaboration with researchers from competing institutions and tasking tenure committees with valuing patents over publications.”

His concerns come off the back of the high profile CRISPR/Cas9 patent dispute between UC Berkeley and the Broad Institute, which has lead to high-profile public sparring between the two institutions. As Sherkow notes:

“The Broad Institute has produced press releases, videos and a slick feature on its website that stress the importance of Zhang’s contributions to the development of the CRISPR–Cas9 technology. And earlier this year, the central positioning of Zhang’s work in a historical perspective of CRISPR published in Cell by the president and director of the Broad Institute, Eric Lander, prompted a storm of angry responses from scientists, including Doudna and Charpentier. Meanwhile, at UC Berkeley, a press release that discussed the potential of CRISPR described Doudna as “the inventor of the CRISPR–Cas9 technology”.”

In the case of CRISPR both the scientific and financial stakes are dizzyingly high. Last year Doudna and Charpentier were in contention for the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, while Zhang’s Broad spin-off company Editas Medicine recently raised an IPO of $94.4 million. The Broad Institute owns a major equity stake – 4.2% – in the fledgeling company. Sherkow argues that “an obvious danger of increasing the focus on commercialization is that educational institutions will view scientific research as a path to profit, above all else.”

“Biomedical research in educational institutions has long prided itself on a culture of openness and sharing — one that both Zhang and Doudna have exercised by donating various components of the CRISPR–Cas9 system to the open-science consortium Addgene in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The incentives that patents create for educational institutions should not be allowed to erode scientific collaboration.”

What do you think? Are commercial aspirations at odds with scientific collaboration? Read the article and let us know!

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