Defector, a media outlet I’m rooting for, basically came to be when a bunch of Deadspin staffers refused to follow the corporate edict, “Stick to sports.” Well, they’re getting into science coverage now with a feature on new Nobel laureates Emmanuelle Charpentier (France/Berlin) and Jennifer Doudna (UC-Berkeley), and their high-stakes competition with Feng Zhang of the Harvard/MIT project the Broad Institute – a contest that Defector has dubbed “the CRISPR wars”:
That this year’s Nobel Committee waded into the ongoing CRISPR fight so soon is a little surprising. Though an eventual CRISPR-related win had been a sure bet for a few years, Nobel Prizes are often awarded decades after publication of an initial discovery. In fact, those delays can simplify the Committee’s work. They leave the task of sorting out who should get credit for what to time, and more grimly, they might ensure that only three or fewer parties to the discovery are still alive.
It was undeniably a more dramatic choice to award the prize to two recipients, despite the presence of a potential third. The Committee surely deliberated the matter of credit and the award language is appropriately contoured (“a method for genome editing”) to reward the basic science rather than Zhang’s translational work, in what must be a blow to Broad’s pride. Zhang’s co-author George Church, whose striking beard and eccentric wish to repopulate the Arctic tundra with lab-grown woolly mammoths have made him something of a celebrity geneticist, says Charpentier’s and Doudna’s Nobel win was a choice that makes sense in light of the Committee’s preference for discoveries over inventions. He’s right, and Wednesday’s news still leaves open the door for Zhang to someday win the Prize in Medicine.
In purely financial terms, anyway, the Nobel may effectively be a consolation prize for Charpentier and Doudna. Zhang and the Broad Institute are currently winning the patent wars. Berkeley filed a patent application months before Broad did, but in an on-the-nose exercise of institutional might, the Broad Institute filed a dozen patents and paid the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to have them fast-tracked. Charpentier and Doudna and Zhang have now been involved in a protracted patent war for years, each side having spent millions in legal fees.
Compared to the question of who this science will serve and how, the fight between institutions may seem entirely superficial. But who wins the patents and who wins the prizes do determine, however unfairly, who drives the public conversation and who establishes the terms for applied use. The politics and the greater bioethics are intertwined.
And there is another less-mainstream but deeply important question of public interest here: The CRISPR wars embody a trend toward “Big Science,” in which the fruits of taxpayer-funded research are patented and leveraged to lucrative ends. With an exclusive license from Broad, the Broad private spin-off Editas Medical signed one deal worth $737 million. Who does this science serve? The public good or private wealth?