First European patent granted on CRISPR pigs

6. May 2024

Genus is planning market introduction of genetically engineered pigs in the near future

In April 2024, the European Patent Office (EPO) granted the first ever patent on CRISPR pigs, which are supposedly resistant to a virus known to cause serious problems in pig fattening. The pigs are intended for use in food production (EP3331355). The patent holder is the US University of Missouri and the research was funded by Genus, which is one of the largest international corporations in the field of farm animal breeding. Genus has already applied for further patents on CRISPR pigs and has announced it will launch these on the US market soon.

Initially, a license from the US company, Caribou Biosciences, was needed to apply the new genetic engineering (NGT) processes on pigs. Jennifer Doudna is one of the founders of Caribou Biosciences and is regarded as one of the inventors of the CRISPR/Cas genetic scissors, holding several patent applications on its usage. Now, the NGT pigs have also been declared to be a technical invention as well as their offspring.

From a legal point of view, farmers and pig producers will only be allowed to fatten the patented animals, but not to propagate or breed. Other pig breeders will only have access to the NGT pigs if they have a license from Genus. This would allow Genus to further expand its dominant market position. Against this backdrop, the costs of purchasing the piglets are likely to rise.

The NGT pigs are said to be resistant to a RNA-virus (PRRSV) which triggers ‘reproductive and respiratory syndrome’, and is a particular problem for large-scale pig farms. The virus docks at a specific receptor (CD163) found in immune cells. The CRISPR pigs are genetically engineered to prevent the cells from producing the corresponding proteins used by the virus as an entry point.

Whether this solves the problem remains to be seen: there are also reports of some pathways of infection which do not involve the CD163 receptor. In addition, PRRSV (an RNA virus) is extremely adaptable. Earlier attempts to use vaccination to stop PRRSV infections partly facilitated the emergence of new virus variants, which had even incorporated parts of the vaccines into their genetic material, and thus become even more virulent. It therefore remains to be seen whether the virus can actually be outwitted by the genetically engineered pigs. It also remains to be seen how the pigs will react to other pathogens or whether the processes for genetic engineering caused unintended side effects.

Following heated debates about the deregulation of NGT plants in the last months, it is expected that the new EU Parliament, after the elections in June, soon will start to discuss also the future regulation of NGT animals.

The EU Parliament has spoken out in favour of banning corresponding patents. However, this is unlikely to have any effect on practices at the EPO, as it is not an EU institution and also grants patents to countries that are not members of the EU. It is therefore to be expected that the possible introduction of NGT plants and animals in agriculture will also increase dependency on patent holders.

Christoph Then,, Tel + 49 151 54638040

Further information:

The patent

Background on the pig virus

Report on commercialisation in the US

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