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Vertex will pay tens of millions to license a controversial CRISPR patent

The company will pay rival Editas Medicine and the Broad Institute so that it can sell its breakthrough gene-editing treatment for sickle-cell disease.

December 13, 2023
corporate handshake with money exchanged and fragments of biotech scene and a patent in the background
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Envato

Vertex Pharmaceuticals has agreed to buy rights to use a dominant CRISPR patent owned by the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, avoiding a potential lawsuit over its new gene-editing treatment for sickle-cell disease.

The agreement allows Vertex to start selling its treatment, approved last Friday, without fear of patent infringement claims. The one-time treatment will be among the most expensive ever sold, with a price tag of $2.2 million.

The patent on CRISPR has been the fulcrum off a decade-long legal fight after the Broad Institute, a research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, snatched rights to the most important uses of the gene-editing tool in 2014.  

Broad’s patent claims have been opposed by the University of California, Berkeley, which says researchers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are the tool’s true inventors. The pair won a Nobel Prize in 2020 for their work on the technology.

An exclusive license to the Broad Institute patents for human use was previously sold to Editas Medicine, a competing CRISPR editing company, which has its own treatment for sickle-cell disease in the works.

Under an agreement with Editas announced today, Vertex agreed to pay it $50 million and annual fees of between $10 million and $40 million a year until 2034, when the patent expires. Of this money, the Broad Institute and Harvard University, whose employees are listed on key patent claims, will receive a percentage in the “mid double digits.”

Broad manages a portfolio of CRISPR patents on behalf of itself, MIT and Harvard. A spokesperson for the Broad Institute, David Cameron, did not answer questions about whether any of the funds from Editas also benefit MIT, which is the publisher of this website.

In our Checkup newsletter two weeks ago, we predicted that the patent issue could come to a head, but some researchers told us a lawsuit was unlikely, because it would stand in the way of cures.

Reached for comment last week, David Altshuler, the head of research at Vertex, said the company was “confident in our patent position.” By that time, however, he likely knew a deal was close and that Vertex would gain rights to use the Broad patents.

Before joining Vertex in 2015, Altshuler was a senior deputy at the Broad Institute, even sharing an office area and lab space with Feng Zhang, the center’s key CRISPR scientist, whose name is on the patents (and who also contributed to early work on the sickle-cell treatment). Given that background, some observers believed a settlement was likely.

A Vertex spokesperson declined to comment on the arrangement. In a press release, Editas said the windfall would allow it to finance its operations through 2026.

It’s not yet clear if the license agreement points to an end of the fierce patent fight between Broad and Berkeley. That has been continuing before a US patent court, with Berkeley still trying to overturn its rival's claims.

“This license does not seem to end the decade-long dispute between Doudna and Zhang,” says Jacob Sherkow, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. “Is it going to end, or is this license just a one-off?”

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