WASHINGTON - The first skirmish was fought last week in what could be a long war over a revolutionary patent on gene-editing technology, with colossal amounts of money at stake.

Facing off are the top international experts in the fast-growing field of gene-editing - pitting an American of Chinese origin, Feng Zhang, against the French-American duo of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.

The US Patent and Trademark Office ruled last Wednesday in favor of Zhang, who is a researcher at the Broad Institute, a collaboration between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After that decision, which stunned many scientific observers, Editas Medicine, a start-up linked to Broad, saw its stock soar.

Meanwhile, shares plummeted for companies that believed the patent rights would go to Charpentier and Doudna. The dispute mingles science and economics, with billions of dollars in contracts hanging in the balance. Charpentier and Doudna “would be crazy not to appeal. The cost-benefit ratio demands it,” said Jorge Contreras, an expert in genetics and intellectual property at the University of Utah. Charpentier, who is affiliated with the Max Planck Institute of Berlin, and Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, have already won a $3 million US Breakthrough Prize for their work and are widely believed to be in line for a Nobel Prize someday.