The bitter patent feud over CRISPR, a gene-editing tool with unprecedented potential, continues in the United States. Meanwhile, French biotech Cellectis is staking a claim to the technology in Europe.
Cellectis announced that the European Patent Office has granted it a patent to use CRISPR in T cells. The patent, to be issued in August and valid until 2034, will advance Cellectis’ efforts to marshal the immune system against cancer. Other companies looking to use CRISPR in T cells in Europe will need to license from Cellectis.
“We’re not a company that’s here to block the other [companies],” said Andre Choulika, chairman and CEO of Cellectis, to GEN. “We’re here to develop products on our side … but, if there are people that are interested in using CRISPR in T cells, we’re definitely open to talk to them.”
Cellectis’ claim to fame is its use of CAR-T cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells. These modified immune cells are equipped with surface proteins that latch onto cancerous cells. The surface proteins can be customized to a patient’s specific cancer.
Other companies—including Novartis, Juno, and Kite—also use CAR-T cells. Unlike these companies, which collect and modify a patient’s own immune cells, Cellectis is developing universal CAR-T cell lines that can be widely used. Cellectis has already used this approach to successfully treat two infants with leukemia. And the company has three ongoing clinical trials testing different CAR-T cells for different cancers.
In order to improve its CAR-T cells, Cellectis plans to use CRISPR to screen for genes that can be knocked out. These could include genes encoding checkpoint inhibitors—molecules that guard against excessive inflammation by weakening the activity of immune cells. Removing the shackles from CAR-T cells may unleash their full therapeutic potential—if this can be done without provoking a runaway immune response.
While CRISPR screens are cheap and fast, Cellectis doesn’t plan to give patients CRISPR-modified cells anytime soon. Choulika believes TALEN, an older gene-editing technology, is more precise and therefore, better for therapeutic use. But Cellectis will use CRISPR as a quick-and-dirty way to identify genes during the initial research stages.
Choulika offers a simple analogy to illustrate the point.
“If you want to print a boarding pass, you print it on your printer at home,” said Choulika. “If you want to print a book or a magazine, you … go to a professional.”
Jacob Sherkow, professor at New York Law School, thinks that Cellectis’ patent is a major development in the world of gene editing and cancer immunotherapy.
“Cellectis’ patent is pretty broad and it covers the most typical variants of the CRISPR CAR-T technology,” Sherkow commented to GEN. “They’ve staked a claim to a pretty decently sized rock on this otherwise variegated patent landscape.”
But Sherkow sees ways that companies could work around the patent. He notes that the patent applies to CRISPR in cells where the gene editing components are expressed in the T cells. If a company can deliver already-expressed CRISPR components to cells, Sherkow says, that may fall outside the patent’s claims.
Cellectis has submitted a similar application to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Choulika believes the patent’s approval in Europe bodes well for its approval in the U.S., but Sherkow is less certain.
“Generally speaking … the two institutions do not pay attention to what one another does—period,” said Sherkow.
He cites the fact that, in the United States, the Broad Institute received a CRISPR patent, despite UC Berkeley complaints that the Broad’s work was an obvious extension of research done at Berkeley. But, in Europe, UC Berkeley won a major patent for the broad application of CRISPR in bacterial, animal, and plant cells. Because of the overlap between Berkeley and Cellectis’ patents, companies looking to use CRISPR in T cells may need to license from both groups.
Berkeley’s European CRISPR patent is already being challenged by at least six groups, Sherkow says. Cellectis will likely face opposition as well.
“It would be beyond belief if this patent were not challenged,” said Sherkow.