A new study of the global CRISPR patent landscape released today provides the most detailed insight yet into how entities are seeking to protect their inventions relating to the revolutionary technology.

Speaking exclusively to IAM, the report’s author Aditi Das outlined its notable findings, such as DowDuPont’s surprise emergence as the biggest IP holder in the field. She also described the chaotic nature of the CRISPR patent landscape – which could create licensing difficulties as the highly-lucrative technology is commercialised in coming years – as well as emphasising that failures to name all inventors in patent applications may give rise to future litigation.

The study by iRunway, entitled ‘CRISPR: Global Patent Landscape’, provides an unprecedented analysis of the patents filed for the revolutionary gene-editing technology, whose market is expected to rise from $3.19 billion in 2017 to $6.28 billion by 2022. It reveals the geographical spread of the applications, the leading rights holders in the field and the technological focus of their applications.

Identifying 4,336 filings that have been submitted in various parts of the world, the report counts 410 granted CRISPR patents, and 3,926 pending or lapsed applications. While filings date back more two decades, they increased greatly after the 2013 discovery of the CRISPR Cas9 genome editing tool, the report finds.

It also highlights the diverse technological claims made in existing applications, showing that CRISPR source is covered by 493 patent families, various CRISPR components by a cumulative total of 3,035 families, and related mechanisms covered by a total of 1,300 patent families. The report counts 1,861 and 2,451 patent families pertaining to various ways of delivering and applying CRISPR.

The study underscores the dominance of North America and Asia in CRISPR patent filings, with each accounting for 29% of the total, compared to 12% in Europe – where the UK is the largest filer – and 22% made via the PCT at WIPO. But, while North America-based innovators have filed for patents around the world, Chinese inventors seem to have been more focused on national protection.

In identifying the many prolific assignees of CRISPR IP assets, the report flags up some familiar names: The Broad Institute is associated with 297 assets, while its close affiliates Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have 343 and 316 each. Their opponent, the University of California, has a more modest total, with 131.

One surprising result, though, is that DowDuPont – the world’s largest chemical company recently merged from Dow and DuPont – is now the single biggest owner of CRISPR patents and applications globally with 514, or 12% of the total. “Though there has been so much coverage of the dispute between the Broad and the University of California,” Das told IAM, “it is DowDuPont that has emerged as the leader in this field. That was a surprise for us, and will turn people’s heads”.

However, the significance of this finding is unclear at this stage. It will take further research, says Das, to determine whether DowDuPont has any rights to core CRISPR technology akin to those of the Broad Institute and the University of California. Most of its inventions, she notes, seem to relate to the cultivation of bacteria strains, which could serve as sources of CRISPR DNA.

But in revealing the scale of existing CRISPR filings, and the uncertainty surrounding them, the study highlights the IP complexities that are likely to surround the commercialisation of CRISPR technologies in the coming years, as well as the potential for licensing and infringement disputes in the field.

According to Das: “The situation’s pretty chaotic at the moment. There are lots of entities; who owns what and who needs to get a licence from whom is unclear. Depending on the specifics of the technology, DowDuPont might have to reach out to the Broad Institute or University of California for licences in order to commercialise its inventions. Or other companies seeking to commercialise a strain of bacteria as a CRISPR source might have to reach an agreement with all three entities. So it could be difficult for future entrepreneurs to take out a licence.”

Das also put her finger on another potential source of conflict: the failure to disclose all inventors in CRISPR patent applications. “So far, obviousness and novelty are the main issues to arise in litigation. But there has been a lot of collaboration between research institutes, and there is a high probability that any failure to disclose all inventors could be used as grounds for invalidating patents.” This cropped up in the EPO’s recent cancellation of a key Broad Institute patent, and Das believes that disputes along similar lines may be brewing in the US too.