Week in Review: March 27–31

European Patent Office greenlights CRISPR patent; scientists reconsider a cancer drug target; NIH accepts preprints in grant applications; MERS drug developers test antibodies; experts weigh the risks and benefits of whole-exome sequencing for healthy people

Tracy Vence
Mar 31, 2017

EPO to award CRISPR IP

The University of California, Berkeley, the University of Vienna, and Emmanuelle Charpentier are set to receive a wide-ranging patent from the European Patent Office (EPO) for CRISPR gene-editing technology. The EPO announced its intention to grant the patent, which covers the use of CRISPR in all cell types, last week (March 23). Challenges are expected in coming months. Moreover, some have argued that the CRISPR intellectual property (IP) situation in Europe will mean less than the ongoing IP evaluations in the U.S., where the UC Berkeley team’s patent coverage remains to be determined.

“The U.S. is . . . the market where up until now most therapeutics make by far the most money,” Bob Cook-Deegan of Arizona State University told The Scientist. “So US patents matter more.”

Spoiled MELK?

A reexamination of the roles of maternal embryonic leucine zipper kinase (MELK) in cancer cells...

MELK-targeting therapies are currently being evaluated in preclinical and early-stage clinical trials. “We are not in a position to give you any comment about [another] group’s paper,” OncoTherapy Science, a company that’s developing one such a treatment, wrote in an email to The Scientist.

Preprints considered

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has “never restricted the materials that can be cited in the reference section of a research plan,” the agency said in a March 24 statement announcing that preprints and other so-called interim research products can be cited in grant applications and reports filed for the May 25, 2017, deadlines and thereafter. The agency also shared guidelines for citing non-peer-reviewed materials and suggested how researchers might evaluate where they post preprints and similar works.

WES: Worth it?

As more and more companies offer whole-exome sequencing (WES) services, experts urge caution: for now, there’s no guarantee this type of testing will produce actionable information. For apparently healthy individuals with no known genetic risk factors for disease, WES “generates so much data but so little of it can be interpreted or can be helpful,” Yann Joly of McGill University told The Scientist.

Antibody-dependent enhancement in mice

Mice that received human plasma containing antibodies against related flaviviruses, dengue and West Nile, showed signs of antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE)—in which immune “memory” of a previous infection boosts a new one—when infected with Zika, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai showed in Science this week (March 30). “Most of the evidence of Zika enhancement that exists up to now is from in vitro experiments, while this paper looks at outcomes in mice,” noted Isabel Rodríguez-Barraquer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Antibodies against MERS tested

The coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is still killing people in Saudia Arabia and elsewhere. While the MERS-CoV has not received as much attention as other viruses that have caused recent outbreaks, researchers remain dedicated to developing vaccines and therapeutics to combat infections. “It is important to know how the MERS coronavirus affects the biology of infected cells,” noted Ahmed Al-Qahtani of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Al-Qahtani’s team is working to thwart MERS-CoV infection by targeting a host cell receptor called dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP-4).

Bee gut microbiomes

Several species of social bees share a core group of gut microbes. This week (March 29) in Science Advances, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin tracked the phylogeny of bee-bacteria associations. “Overall, it seems that the social nature of this group of organisms is facilitating maintenance and long-term evolution of the gut bacteria,” coauthor Waldan Kwong, who is now at the University of British Columbia, told The Scientist. “We don’t see the same types of patterns in solitary bees.”

Other news in life science:

House Votes to Limit EPA Decision Making
The “HONEST” Act, passed by the House this week, would restrict the nature of the research that can inform new regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt overrules the agency’s previous recommendation on chlorpyrifos. 

FDA Nominee’s Plan for Juggling COIs
Scott Gottlieb says he would resign from his industry roles within 90 days of confirmation and recuse himself from agency decisions about his former companies’ products for one year.

Mini Female Reproductive System on a Chip
Scientists create an organ-on-a-chip system that can simulate the human menstrual cycle.

Aedes aegypti Genome Assembled From Scratch
Scientists use a new technique to piece together the mosquito’s full genome.