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  • Jack Lau

A DNA Technology which will change your life and a Patent War like a Movie

This is a plot that is prime for a Tom Hanks kind of DaVinci Code movie. Here is the story. There is the right plot, the all too interesting characters, the earth shattering bio-technology that will change the lives of all of us, lots of money involved, a terrible legal battle and a lot of finger pointing and accusations. Oh, and it involves some of the biggest names in academia as well.

A brilliant professor invented an earth breaking technology that can save millions of lives. She filed a patent through her university just like they normally do. At the same time, a young scientist at the opposite side of the continent claimed invention at another university. He also filed a patent. In a normal case like this, the story would have ended because the patent would be granted to the person who filed first. It turned out not to be the case. Because of a special clause in United States patent application, one can actually pay a small fee, anywhere between US$140 to US$4000, to accelerate the patent application. And, in this case the young rival did just that. (

And, guess what, this patent is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.

Now, both sides are in intensive legal battles with all the big names you can imagine involved. You send one side a subpoena, and the other side contest; and no settlement in sight.

Now, who are the people? In 2012, a Professor Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, then of Umeå University in Sweden, had a major discovery and filed a patent. Doudn, an eloquent speaker, managed to use a technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to perform a DNA editing miracle. Essentially, this technology allows scientists to repair your damaged DNA. So, down the road, if you have Hungtinton disease, no problem. Using this technology, scientist can "repair" you. Notice we did use the word repair, because this is what it is. In the old medicinal world, we usually do something to cure a disease. We do drugs to combat a virus, for instance. Doctors perform sugergy to remove a tumor, as another example. But, in this case, as the scientist calls it, this is a DNA editing technology, and is very much like "using a new software update to re-program a computer code", except that the software is your body now. Imagine this. If you have a bad gene cell, scientist can now remove the bad section, add a new section to it to replace the bad ones --- and with high accuracy.

And, this is no science fiction. If you want to be taller, and with a 20-20 vision, no problem. Scientist can just edit the genes that are inhibiting your growth or limit your vision. It is exciting, but of course it is scary.

In this video, Doudna herself explains the technology in a TED talk.

How CRISPR lets us edit our DNA | Jennifer Doudna

And, for those folks who have trouble viewing it or want to have a transcript in Chinese, here is another link: 詹妮弗.道娜: 我們現在可以編輯我們的DNA,但讓我們明智地使用它.

The twist is that while Doudna filed her patent in 2012, another young scientist, a Dr. Feng Zhang, had similar discovery at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute. He also filed a patent, although a bit later. But, he paid the extra fee and had his patent fast tracked. Guess what! His patent got granted earlier. Now, UC Berkeley, and MIT-Harvard are in a legal battle over the ownership of this fundamental patent! And, the details are truly worthy of a drama. One side argued that they filed first. The other side said that "no", and further claimed that their claim is broader. One side said that how can you claim broader because the extension is "obvious". The other side said, "what do you mean obvious, these are the top notch scientists and only they know". One side said, "your student saw what we did". And, subpoena of witnesses followed. The other side contested...

It is really rare to see two top notched academic institutions embroiled in a legal battle. But the problem is that both sides have begun licensing the know-how, and there are a lot of vested interests in who owns the technologies. Unfortunately, the patent fight has gotten too intense as well, with both sides subpoenaing witnesses and producing claims.

A story with so many brilliant characters, involving all the big names, are just too tempting not to be interested. Involved in the patent litigation are UC Berkeley and MIT. In addition, Professor Doudna graduated from Harvard while Dr. Feng Zhang finished his PhD from Stanford. So, you essentially get the top institutions all named. Yes, you get the top 1, 2, 3, and 4 academic institutions in biology and biochemistry. ( And, we would imagine that this is a very closely related academic community with most people knowing most people.

Legal patent dram aside, folks, we think this is a technology that will probably change all of our lives, and for sure our next generations'.

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