CRISPR Patent Battles, a Super-Sized Space Launch, and the Rise of Commuter Drones

7:37 minutes

India launched 104 space satellites on Wednesday. Credit: Indian Space Research Organization
India launched 104 space satellites on Wednesday. Credit: Indian Space Research Organization

This week, the U.S. Patent Office ruled in favor of the Broad Institute in an early case over rights to the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. The CRISPR-Cas9 technique, which allows scientists to search and replace specific genetic sequences in a genome, has been the subject of intense legal battles between the Broad Institute and the University of California, home to CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna.

[Just how easy is it to edit DNA?]

Speaking in a press conference Wednesday, Doudna said that the ruling was not the end of the story and that the University of California would likely win a patent over a broader use of the technology. “They have a patent on green tennis balls; we will have a patent on all tennis balls,” she said.  

IEEE Spectrum’s Amy Nordrum joins Ira to discuss the case and other news from the week in science, including an update on California’s Oroville Dam spillway, a look at an Indian space launch that put 104 small satellites in orbit, and plans in Qatar for autonomous flying drones—for people.


Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

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But first, this week, the US patent office ruled in favor of the Broad Institute in a case over the rights to the gene editing technique known as CRISPR. As you know, the CRISPR technique allows scientists to search and replace specific genetic sequences in a genome. It’s a very new and important tool. And the rights to CRISPR have been the subject of intense legal battles between the Broad Institute and University of California, home to CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna.

Speaking in a press conference Wednesday, Doudna said that the ruling was not the end of the story and that the University of California would likely win a patent over the broader use of the technology. She said, quote, “they have a patent on green tennis balls. We have a patent on all tennis balls,” she said.

Here to discuss– she’s not playing any tennis– is IEEE Spectrum’s Amy Nordrum. You don’t play tennis, do you?

AMY NORDRUM: I used to play tennis.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us what this tennis ball– what is the reference there to?

AMY NORDRUM: Sure. So the issue in this argument, this patent debate, really centered on 13 core patents that had previously been awarded to a researcher named Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston. So these patents described the use of CRISPR to splice and edit genes in living eukaryotic cells, which are those cells with the nucleus, like the ones that we find in plants and animals.

Now, the University of California and Jennifer Doudna’s group were claiming that Zhang’s research and findings covered by those patents were a logical extension of some earlier work that she had done and for which she had applied for a patent, previously completed in 2012 at the University of California. So they’re basically saying that Zhang’s work was a logical extension that followed off of their own work, and they deserve the patent and the rights for that work.

So obviously, the patent office ruled in the favor of the Broad Institute and Zhang, and so those 13 patents were upheld. And this puts the University of California in an interesting position. So they will continue to try to seek their own patent as well. But as you said, it may apply to a broader use, whereas this Zhang patent is more specifically focused on living eukaryotic cells, which is where we see a lot of the potential for genetic editing techniques in the future in disease and human medicine.

IRA FLATOW: So if you’re a researcher or a company doing research, and you want to use the CRISPR technology, who do you pay the royalties?

AMY NORDRUM: So already, companies have lined up on either side of this debate. They’ve already been trying to pursue their own clinical trials and line up the patenting and licensing necessary to do so. So we’ve already got companies on both sides of the debate that have paid for and licensed CRISPR from both the University of California and the Broad Institute.

So now there is a lot of enthusiasm for those that chose the Broad before this final decision was made. And now there’s a lot of uncertainty on the other side about whether those who had lined up with the University of California and that licensing would have to be revisited, or perhaps they’d have to seek the license now from the Broad as well.

IRA FLATOW: This is something the lawyers must love.

AMY NORDRUM: Yes. It’s very interesting, and there’s a lot of money on the line. This is expected to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. All right. Let’s move on to a story you have about a satellite launch, but not just any launch. Tell us about that one.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right so this week in India, a rocket launched carrying 104 satellites. And that sets a new world record for the most satellites packed onto a single rocket for one launch in the history. So this was interesting, because they carried so many satellites at once. And this is possible because satellite technology has really become much smaller, more compact, almost like our smartphone technology now has more computing power than many early computers did.

So the satellites aboard this rocket were packed in and deployed at three different spots during the launch in three different orbits in order to do things like weather monitoring, satellite imagery, and possibly some use for defense as well in the future.

IRA FLATOW: So this is not just one, all purpose to do one task you can use each and every one of them for something else if you’d like.

AMY NORDRUM: So different countries had loaded up these satellites up for different purposes. One company in particular– actually, a US company named Planet– had eight of these satellites onboard for their own private constellation. What they’re trying to do is image the entire Earth every single day. And they’re hoping that these 88 satellites will help them reach that goal.

IRA FLATOW: The number 88 keeps popping up a lot of times. Let’s talk about– we heard a lot earlier this week about the Oroville Dam in California, and we saw pictures of it on TV. It looked pretty spooky. Has a danger now passed? Is the water back down?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, there’s good news, and then there’s also a reason for caution with the Oroville Dam story. So this dam is the tallest in America. It’s 40 feet taller than the Hoover Dam, so it’s massive. And this week, it reached 100% capacity due to some heavy rains that had been falling in the area.

So the dam was relying on first its main spillway, which is an overflow channel for water to come off of the lake when the dam is at capacity. But that first spillway had experienced some erosion, and so they needed to move to a second spillway that they only really typically use in emergency situations. And they were soon finding that that spillway was also being subject to some erosion. So they were worried about some failure issues, potential failure in the spillways which could cause some flooding in the valleys below.

So earlier this week, California officials had suggested that 180,000 people evacuate the area. Those people were able to return home as of Wednesday. But the officials aren’t really sure that everything is in the clear yet. They’ve been doing some repairs by dumping a bunch of rocks in three main areas.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a giant hole in the spillway. Wow.

AMY NORDRUM: So there were three that were being filled in with rocks. And the dam is now about 32 feet below its top level, which is really good news. But there’s rain in the forecast until Tuesday in the area, so they’re asking residents to remain really cautious.

IRA FLATOW: So finally, you have a story called “Where’s My Flying Car.”

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: We’re always promised one every generation. Are we going to have one now?

AMY NORDRUM: So Dubai is pretty convinced that they’re going to have one this year. So this week, the head of the transportation agency in Dubai made an announcement saying that their city government expects to work with a Chinese company called EHANG to bring the first autonomous passenger drones to the city this summer. So they’re expecting to have drones that can fly one person carrying one small piece of baggage, such as a suitcase, in and around Dubai.

And this is a pretty bold claim. We haven’t actually seen this technology work with a person inside of it before. But we do know that the drone exists, and that it’s likely that they can do what they say they are going to do. The safety issue is another big question, though. We’re not really sure–

IRA FLATOW: Details, details. Da

AMY NORDRUM: We’re not really sure how this drone would maneuver through buildings, for example, or avoid other drones in the air. We’re not entirely sure what would happen if the propellers on the drone were to fail or if the software inside the drone were to fail. I’m sure there’s redundancies there, but we need to learn a lot more about the technology.

IRA FLATOW: Me, too. I’ll wait for someone else to test it out.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s probably a good idea.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Amy. Amy Nordrum is associate editor at The IEEE Spectrum.

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