Genome Editing and Patents
Professor Duncan Matthews, Director of the Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute, has convened a high-level expert working group on genome editing and patents.
Professor Duncan Matthews, Director of the Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute (QMIPRI), has convened a high-level expert working group on genome editing and patents. This initiative builds on Professor Matthews’ earlier research project on Access to CRISPR Genome Editing Technologies: Patents, Human Rights and the Public Interest, which was undertaken last year in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition (MPI) Munich and the South Centre, Geneva. The new QMIPRI high-level expert working group, met online most recently on 14 September 2020 and aims to fill an important gap in the current genome editing debate between science, regulation, law and ethics.
Genome editing holds great potential for society, providing fast, efficient, precise and relatively inexpensive tools to modify the cells of any living organism. Using genome editing techniques, cells of the body can be modified, potentially curing patients of chronic, lifelong illnesses. Editing the genome of human embryos can also modify the germline identity of human beings, eradicating hereditary diseases in new-born babies such as Huntington’s Disease and creating resistance to life-threatening conditions for future generations.
There is also great potential for non-human uses of genome editing technologies. New varieties of plants can be developed that are disease resistant or have a higher crop yield, while new breeds of farmed animals or marine life can be introduced into the food system in order to offer a broader range of options to consumers and to contribute positively to food security.
Since 2012, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) has been used in combination with Cas9 (CRISPR associated protein number 9, which plays a vital role in the natural immunological defence system of the body) to guide and cut DNA, and therefore alter a cell’s genome. The CRISPR-Cas9 system has provided a faster, cheaper, more accurate and more efficient method than other previously known genome editing techniques.
But genome editing also raises new challenges for how society regulates technologies, involving critical policy decisions about avoiding unnecessary risk, taking into account human rights, managing public expectations, ensuring fair and equitable access to the benefits of this new technology’s use, and acting in the public interest.
The working group, chaired by Professor Matthews at the Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute, brings together leading experts in the field to address social, regulatory and legal issues arising from the application of genome editing and to re-think policy approaches.
Membership of the working group includes Peter Thompson (Chief Executive of the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and External Member of the QMUL Council), Frances Flinter (Emeritus Professor of Clinical Genetics, Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Trust), Peter Mills (Deputy Director, Nuffield Council on Bioethics), Peter Braude OBE (Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, King’s College London) and Timo Minssen (Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Biomedical Innovation Law, University of Copenhagen).
The working group is currently looking at what happens when patent applications for genome editing technologies are considered by the European Patent Office. It is also examining how licence agreements can help ensure wider access to patented genome editing technology in the future. A report by the QMIPRI working group, setting out its findings on these issues, will be published in early 2021.