Wednesday, 7 December 2016

CRISPR-Cas9 patent battle enters new phase

On the 6th of December, the patent dispute over the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool got underway in the first hearing at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A queue of patent attorneys, lawyers, investors , biotech industry representatives, and journalists formed in front of the court room from 5 am, indicating the wide interest in the case involving arguably one of the most important biotech inventions of the decade.

(c) Dana Verkouteren
The proceedings between Doudna of UC Berkeley and Fang of the Broad Institute have been in process since interference proceedings were requested by UC Berkeley in 2014 - an official reassessment to determine who was the first to invent the tool.

Jennifer Doudna first filed in May of 2012, before publishing their seminal article in Science, involving CRISPR-Cas9 in bacterial cells (prokaryotes). In December 2012, Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute filed his own patent, demonstrating use of the gene-editing technique in more complex eukaryotic cells, such as those found in mice and humans. The Broad Institute requested (and paid the extra fee for) expedited review for their patent application (this accelerated review process as an option for applicants is now under review by the USPTO). The USPTO awarded the Broad Institute their CRISPR-Cas9 patent in 2014, before Doudna, which is when UC Berkeley started proceedings. 

The three federal patent judges present, focused their questions on two central issues: 'obviousness' and 'reasonable expectation of success.' Berkeley insists it was obvious to extend the system from prokaryote to eukaryotes, while Broad contends that there was no reasonable expectation of success by people who had ordinary skill in the art. A piece of evidence they use to back up this claim comes from Doudna herself: a press article claiming that “she experienced ‘many frustrations’ getting CRISPR to work in human cells.”

A statement from the broad institute details: 
"Broad Institute, MIT and Harvard were first to invent and first to file patent applications with regard to CRISPR genome editing in eukaryotic cells. Given that the underlying facts have not changed, the Broad Institute is confident the USPTO will reach the same conclusion it did initially when it awarded these patents and will continue to recognize Broad, MIT and Harvard roles in developing this transformative technology." 
According to some sources CRISPR has already attracted hundreds of millions in investments and many further research projects, not to mention general excitement about its potential from the scientific community. Recently, Chinese scientists undertook the first clinical trial of CRISPR, using it to treat patients with lung cancer. Both parties have already licensed their technology to firms (Editas and CRISP Therapeutics) whom now have to place their research is on hold until this debate is cleared up. 

The hearing continues.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Book Review: The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

Described as one of our leading technology thinkers and writers, Kevin Kelly’s new book The Inevitable outlines his vision for the future and the role that technology will play in shaping it.

The book is organised into 12 chapters, each describing a ‘force’ that Kelly considers to be evolving at a remarkable rate. Kelly both describes these deep trends (flowing, screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, tracking, and questioning) and demonstrates how they overlap and relate to one another.

There are some slightly scary implications. Kelly suggests that future generations will look back at ours as the first that "linked them together into one very large thing". Another potentially worrying chapter involves tracking, where Kelly talks about loss of privacy and the need to create sensors - "We are on our way to manufacturing 54 billion sensors every year by 2020". (No idea where he got this number from).

Near the end of the book, he mentions some particularly hot topics at the moment - saying that “virtual reality is becoming real” and AI will become the focus for many companies, including Google, in the future.

The book has been praised for its accessible style of writing and use of examples and anecdotes rather than jargon. However, I find this means it occasionally lacks specifics or evidence. The word technology itself is possibly overused and sometimes seems hand-wavy; not really articulating the contributions of many different areas of science and engineering. It also doesn’t mention role of capitalism, or place these technological advances in wider context of human society or the environment.

Overall however, The Inevitable is an insightful and interesting read.

Kevin Kelly helped launch Wired magazine and was its executive editor for its first seven years. He has written for The New York TimesThe EconomistScienceTime, and The Wall Street Journal among many other publications. His previous books include Out of ControlNew Rules for the New EconomyCool Tools, and What Technology Wants. Currently Senior Maverick at Wired, Kelly lives in Pacifica, California.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Samsung patents blood pressure measuring headphones

A recent patent from Samsung shows a very interesting new consumer health sensor product that could potentially hit the market in the coming years. (Spotted on my occasional searching of the @freshpatents twitter page)

The patent (United States Patent Application 20160256117 A1) published on the 8th of September relates to a pair of headphones or earphones with multiple built in light emitters and corresponding detectors. The detector-pairs read blood pulse signals at multiple points around the ear. Using this data and a stored blood pressure estimation algorithm, values for blood pressure are obtained.

A method and apparatus for measuring blood pressure are provided. According to one or more exemplary embodiments, the apparatus for measuring blood pressure obtains a blood pressure value by applying a plurality of particular points, sampled at regular intervals from a pulse wave signal detected in an ear area of an object, to a pre-stored blood pressure estimation algorithm."
Blood pressure is a key health indicator and current upper arm cuff-type inflatable measurement devices can cause users discomfort and inconvenience. The proposed headphone devices can be used for real-time, prolonged monitoring of an individual's continuous change in blood pressure, which is a great improvement.

A potential downside to this technology and a fact that could be limiting in the commercial viability of these headphones, could be that the algorithm requires blood pressure values. Therefore it would need calibrating initially with standard upper arm blood pressure measurements. The technology is also very similar to current heart rate monitors, just with the addition of the blood pressure estimation algorithm. 

Interestingly, articles surfaced online in 2014 about Apple developing similar earphone devices, but the source of this leaked Apple information later retracted his statement calling it a hoax.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Polymer membranes for nano-sized separations

Separation techniques are increasingly important processes for chemical industry and relate to the isolation of certain components of complex mixtures. Organic solvent nanofiltration, in particular, involves the separation of solvent molecules from larger molecules, aggregates, or metal complexes based on size selective permeation. Researchers from Imperial College (led by Prof. Andrew Livingstone) have developed new polymer nanomembranes based on polyacrylate networks, and have recently published their findings in Nature Materials.

The membranes were synthesised by interfacial polymerisation of multifunctional aromatic alcohols with multifunctional acyl chlorides (on a macroporous polyimide support) leading to highly crosslinked polymer networks a few hundreds of nanometers thick.

By using non-planar aromatic alcohol monomers they were able to significantly enhance the nanoporosity of the membranes due to inefficient packing of the polymer chains. This inventive step has led to exciting new nanomembranes which are able to rapidly separate small solvent molecules very efficiently.

a) 3D representation of polyacrylate network, b) schematic diagram showing nanofilm composite membrane based separation. Image (c) NPG, used with permission.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Conference Report! - Warwick Polymer Conference 2016

From the 11th- 14th of July I attended the Warwick Polymer Conference, admittedly this is not terribly surprising as Warwick is my home university and polymer chemistry is my area of research! None-the-less, what a great conference it was! Held every 4 years, the Warwick Polymer Conference attracts the biggest names in polymer chemistry, and this year was the largest yet with over 580 delegates. Highlights from the plenary lectures included Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, Christopher Barner-Kowolik, Molly Stevens, David Leigh, Virgil Percec, Takuzo Aida, Ben Zhong Tang, Steve Armes, Nikos Hadjichristidis, and Marc Hillmyer. One of the talks I found most interesting was from Ulrich Schubert on his impressive research on polymer based redox-flow batteries. Its amazing how in the approximately 5 years since starting this new area of research in his group, they have been granted patents, funded entire new buildings, started a company, and published in Nature!

Aside from the scientific content of the conference, it was great to meet and socialise with chemists from all over the world. The conference dinner was fantastic, and included a performance from the Nottingham polymer rock band - No Dead Chains! There was also a 5-a-side football tournament, which in the end was won by the Armes group. What an excellent few days! 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

European Inventor Awards 2016

Earlier this month in Lisbon the EPO held its annual European Inventor Awards, highlighting the most innovative and exciting inventions of recent years. The awards are intended to recognise inventors from Europe and also internationally, who have made outstanding contributions to technological/scientific progress, social development, and ecomonic growth. President of the EPO, Benoit Battistelli, commented:
“Today's award ceremony is a tribute to the spirit of innovation and the work of dedicated individuals who through their inventions advance the state of the art for all of us. The inventions recognised with this year's award give new hope to people suffering from disease, increase diagnostic efficiency, protect the environment and save thousands of lives on the road.”
Image of award winners, courtesy of the EPO
Ground-breaking innovations
The awards were divided into a number of categories: In the Industry category, German physicists Bernhard Gleich and Jurgen Weizenecker won for their contribution to the development of new medical imaging techniques based on magnetic particles. The SME category was won by a Danish team for the application of ammonia in solid form to reduce diesel engine emissions. Bob Langer from MIT was recognised in the Non-EU countries category, for his decades of work on biodegradable polymers and their application in anticancer drug delivery. 

Medical diagnostic kits
There was also a popular prize awarded to Helen Lee of the University of Cambridge, based on the online votes of the public, which the rest of this post will focus on. Her invention involves easy to read and cheap diagnostic kits for the detection of a variety of diseases including HIV, hepatitis B, and chlamydia, primarily for use in developing countries. Introduced in 2011, these robust and instant tests have already been used to test over 40,000 people. 

In order to commercialise these kits a university spin-out was formed, Diagnostics for the Real World, which has raised approximately EUR 60 million from organisations including UNITAD, NIH and the Wellcome Trust. The company develops these point-of-care assays for resource-strained regions and operates with a 15% cap on profits. Recent years have seen rapid growth in the international market for point-of-care diagnostic devices, with an estimated value of EUR 13 billion in 2013 and an expectation of this to reach EUR 29 billion by 2022.

Since the group at the University of Cambridge was formed in 1996, they have been granted around 20 national patents. The European patents relevant to this European inventor award are: EP1301627, EP1301628, EP1301629, EP1325151, EP1336105. Most of the diagnostic tests are based on one original patent (EP1336105 – Dipstick assay), with the primary independent claim being:

For the test to be conducted a blood sample from the patient is required, a dipstick coated with specific nucleic acids is then inserted into the sample. The nucleic acids on the dipstick amplify the viral RNA in the blood to generate a visible colour change as an indication of viral infection. Due to this method detecting the virus directly and not antibodies in the blood, the test can be used to detect HIV in infants, which was otherwise undetectable.