Mar 23, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

A New Form of College Rivalry: Genetic Engineering Patents

May 14, 2015 12:42 PM EDT

College rivalries are nothing new. Some even reach legendary proportions. USC vs. Notre Dame, Alabama vs. Auburn, Army vs. Navy. They make for great football. But not so much when it comes to technological rights, as we're discovering in the ongoing battle between UC Berkeley and MIT, as they wrestle over the patent for a machine that just might revolutionize genetic engineering.

The machine in question is the CRISPR-Cas9, which enables scientists to slice and dice genes like never before. Not only can it split genes using unmatched precision, but it affords greater accuracy when splicing them back together. And it's the machine's extraordinary gene-editing capabilities that have the universities locked in this latest battle.

At stake are the patent rights to the machine, with both sides claiming ownership. In the Berkeley corner is Jennifer Doudna, a professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology who published a paper in Science back in 2012 outlining the science behind the CRISPR-Cas9. In the opposing corner is Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who procured the patent, along with the commercial rights, which could be worth billions.

That's because the CRISPR-Cas9's applications are potentially limitless - from curing diseases such as cancer and HIV, to preventing inherited diseases like diabetes, to solving issues of food shortage around the world. So there's much at stake.

But this isn't the first time CRISPR-Cas9 has made headlines. There are new concerns that the technology might eventually be used to create genetically engineered humans.

Researchers in China have been hard at work using the technology afforded by CRISPR-Cas9 to genetically alter primates. They were able to edit the sex, metabolism, and immune cell development of the "designer baby" primates, according to an online article in Modern Readers.  And in a separate incident, another group in China manipulated human embryos while conducting research on genetic blood disease.

The patent battle aside, researchers at Berkeley are concerned.

"This is a wakeup call," scientific director for UC Innovative Genomics Initiative, Jacob Corn says. "Human traits change naturally, over time. What we are talking about is the ability to do these ourselves, faster than nature can do."

So scientists at UC have come up with a four-point guide outlining future application for the technology. Their guidelines include creating discussion and education forums about the technology, encouraging open research, holding discussions at international meetings to vet their concerns, and holding off on clinical application until certain ethical issues are resolved.

Now, the only thing lacking is a concrete guideline for the application of CRISPR-Cas9, itself.

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