It was a tiny research community then—in 2012 only 126 papers were published on CRISPR, compared with 2155 last year—and this simple vision seemed healthy for the field: practical and intellectually turbocharged. “We thought in the beginning it would be very important to bring everyone together,” Charpentier says.
Three companies formed to try to exploit CRISPR to create novel medicines, while Broad and two other companies licensed the technology to partners that hoped to engineer everything from improved crops and livestock to better animal models and industrial chemicals. A billion dollars poured into what might be called CRISPR Inc. from VC firms, pharmaceutical companies, and public stock offerings. Tens of millions of that money went to lawyers as the companies and the academic license holders faced each other down in a battle royale at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). “It reminds me of reading about really unhappy rich people,” says Church of the epic patent fight. “They have such a big blank check that they just make each other miserable.”
As the players anxiously await a ruling from USPTO, Science took a close look at how the enterprise fractured, drawing on documents from the patent litigation, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, licensing agreements, and interviews with the central figures. Church, who describes himself as “an inclusive guy” and made his own attempt to bring the top researchers together under one roof, believes that in the long run the splintering of the field will probably work out fine for the companies, their investors, the principal researchers, and the public. “It’s good enough,” says Church, who has equity in two CRISPR companies that focus on human therapeutics. “But it’s not all for the good.”