Bubble Wrap, Barbed Wire and Bionic Eyes

Sunday, 6 May, 2018

All three are examined by Ben Ikenson and Jay Bennett in their work Ingenious Patents. Originally published in 2004, the book explores some of the most innovative of the 6.5 million patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office since Thomas Jefferson issued the first one in 1790. The updated issue has new entries on everything from the iPhone to 3G wireless to CRISPR.

Speaking of CRISPR, the full name of patent US No. 8,697, 359 B1 (PDF) issued on 15 April 2014 is “CRISPR-Cas systems and methods for altering expression of gene products.” This gene editing tool was developed at the University of California, Berkeley and further improved at The Broad Institute, which partnered with Harvard and MIT to work on multi-celled organisms. CRISPR can be used to modify crops and livestock, as well as to treat humans with ailments such as leukaemia, but the ramifications of genetic engineering are just starting to seep into the public mind. Along with the radical treatments for a variety of diseases the technology promises, come fears of what might happen when unsavoury scientists get their hands on CRISPR. Yes, it will be great to remove life-affecting diseases before birth, but it’s scary to think parents might be able to design babies to be faster, stronger or better looking. Only the rich could afford this, hugely increasing inequality. So the world needs to treat CRISPR with extreme caution.

Note: Following litigation, the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board decided last year that UC Berkeley would be granted the patent for the use of CRISPR in any living cell, while the Broad Institute would get it in any eukaryotic cell — cells in plants and animals.


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