CRISPR Patent war to End after the Discovery of a New Editing Protein other than Cas9?

patent war crispr cpf1

CRISPR is already revolutionizing Biotechnology. However, like every biotech revolution, there then follows a patent war. But the discovery of a new gene editing protein (Cpf1), with the potential of replacing Cas9, could change this status-quo.

crispr_logo_grayAs Business Insider puts its, CRISPR is “the biggest biotech discovery of the century“. And its true, it really changed a lot. You can find out more on this review we wrote on how it will revolutionize therapeutics. Now even more so, according to Reuters, as co-discoverers Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) and Emmanuel Charpentier (a French researcher now working in Berlin) have been short-listed to receive the next nobel prize next month.

Jennifer A. Doudna (left) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (right) win the Breakthrough Prize. (Source: Stephen Lam & Reuters)

Whilst CRISPR is a fantastic tool, it does involve a lot of patents which can complicate things. The main battle occurs between University of California, Berkeley and the Broad institute (MIT + Harvard) who fight over who invented the first CRISPR editing tools. Feng Zhang from the Broad (the third most influential scientist in this area) won a crucial US patent on Eukaryotic gene editing. This could give him and the companies exploiting it, such as Editas, a strong position for the future of commercialisation. You can read more in the detailed and great story written by MIT Tech review.

But this whole patent war may still change its tune completely…

As published by Feng Zhang on the 25th of September in Cell, it was announced that a new protein other than Cas9 has been discovered to perform the gene editing. This protein, called Cpf1, could change a lot.

“Cpf1 Is a Single RNA-Guided Endonuclease of a Class 2 CRISPR-Cas System” (Source: Zetsche etc al. in Cell)

Zhang and its team discovered it by screening hundreds of CRISPR systems in different types of bacteria to find enzymes that could be used in human cells. The Cpf1 protein was finally discovered in the bacterial species Acidaminococcus and Lachnospiraceae. 

While having the same property as Cas9 (i.e. precise cutting of the genome), Cpf1 differs in 4 key ways:


This newly described Cpf1 system will have significant impact on research, but more importantly, it will have a significant on intellectual property as well as for business.

Because Cpf1 is a new cutting protein, it is out of scope of the CRISPR-Cas9 patents. Also, Zhang showed that there may be way more cutting proteins (endonucleases) than just these two. Perhaps within the next 5 years we will discover many more proteins that will outpace the properties of Cas9, similarly to how the TAQ polymerase for PCR has evolved over the years.

Feng Zhang from the Broad, (Source: Justin Knight, MIT)

This is crucial for the commercialization of this technology, which is starting to take-off. The leading company in the CRISPR field, Editas Medicine (also connected to Zhang) just raised an additional mega-round of $120M last August, whilst Doudna’s biotech Intellia raised $70M this months. Charpentier’s company, Crispr Therapeutics, also closed a 79.5M round last April.

In short, the discovery of this new protein perfectly illustrates how the CRISPR field has attracted a lot of money, public recognition and pride, and how this is only the  latest move in a very long Gene editing war.

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