What is a patent interference?

Decision could determine who profits from the gene-editing technique in future.

there is no shortage of optimism about the scientific potential of CRISPR–Cas9, a technique that can precisely alter the genomes of everything from wheat to elephants. But there is a great deal of confusion over who will benefit financially from its use.

On 10 March, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will begin an investigation into who deserves the patent on using CRISPR–Cas9 to edit genes. This ‘patent interference’ could determine who profits from CRISPR in coming years.

Nature special: CRISPR

Already, companies have sprung up to take advantage of the technique in agriculture, industrial biotechnology and the treatment of human diseases. One firm, Editas Medicine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, raised US$94 million when it went public on 2 February, even though it does not expect to enter clinical trials until 2017.

Nature takes a look at what the interference proceeding entails and what it could mean for the fate of CRISPR–Cas9.


What is a patent interference?

A relic from the past. Until a few years ago, the United States awarded patents to those who could show that they were the first to invent, rather than simply the first to file the patent. Under that system, when competing inventors claimed to have created the same invention first, the USPTO declared an interference proceeding to determine which deserved the patent.

The United States switched to a first-to-file system in March 2013. But several key CRISPR–Cas9 patents were filed before the change.