CRISPR IS A powerful gene-editing tool that has upended biology and could revolutionize medicine, but the Crispr controversy of the week has nothing to do with how it’s used or even how it works. From the outside, it’s kind of comically petty: One famous scientist wrote an article that downplays the work of another famous scientist, and this has gotten some people very mad.
Inside Crispr circles, it’s easier to see why the historical perspective published in the prestigious journal Cell, titled “Heroes of Crispr,” touched a nerve. For the past several years, the University of California, Berkeley and the Broad Institute (affiliated with MIT and Harvard) have been locked in a patent battle over Crispr, potentially worth billions. Researchers at both institutions claim they invented Crispr as a gene-editing tool first. So when Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad, writes a nearly 8,000-word history of the technique and devotes just two full paragraphs to the work of the Berkeley team, it does provoke hmms.
The patent aside—and this Cell piece will have no impact on the patent proceedings—this looks like a internecine spat among scientists. (Reminder: Scientists have egos!) So why should a non-scientist care? They shouldn’t, I thought at first, content to pop some popcorn and watch the angry tweets roll in. As the conversation expanded though, its importance came into focus: The episode heralds not only how science gets done today, but how the narrative of scientific discovery gets written.
Consider this: Very Important Scientist Eric Lander, who is not involved with Crispr himself, proposes to Very Important Journal Cell that he write a historical perspective on Crispr, which whether he means to or not, casts his own institution in an especially positive light. A decade ago, the resulting article might have provoked some angry whispers and emails in the lab and ended there. But in 2016, Michael Eisen, a Berkeley biologist who is not involved with Crispr, can go on Twitter to repeatedly and even vulgarly denounce Lander. And the comments started rolling in. Not only on Twitter, but also on newly created forums like PubPeer.
The traditional institutions, i.e. the scientific publishers, that could once write science’s history are now losing ground to the wide open Internet. Lots of people have, in fact, made the same observation about the growth of social media and new forums for critiquing scientific studies and new data. Publishers are no longer the only ones who get to the shape the conversation about science.
Cell, for its part, does not seem quite prepared for the firestorm around Lander’s history. The editors had also commissioned a technical review from Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley Crispr researcher at the center of all this, and decided to present Lander and Doudna’s pieces side by side in the latest issue to give both perspectives. “Fairness and balance was a concern from the start,” says Joseph Caputo, Cell’s media manager. The journal did not attach a conflict of interest statement to either piece.
Over the weekend, Doudna posted an online comment on Lander’s piece on Cell’s website that finally was approved Tuesday afternoon (a delay some found suspicious). “The description of my lab’s research and our interactions with other investigators is factually incorrect,” her comment read, “was not checked by the author and was not agreed to by me prior to publication.” Feng Zhang and George Church, both Crispr researchers affiliated with the Broad, confirmed they had fact checked sections of the piece about their own research for Lander—though Church said in an email to WIRED that he only got to fact check the manuscript the day before print and he has since sent a lengthy list of corrections to Lander. One of his corrections disputes Lander’s claim that Doudna needed his assistance to get genome editing to work in human cells.
Lander said in a statement that he had reached out to over a dozen scientists for their input, and Doudna was the only one who declined: “She confirmed the information about her personal background, but said she did not wish to comment in any way on historical statements about the development of Crispr technology.”
That makes sense, given that Berkeley and the Broad are fighting not only a patent war but also a PR war. And the fight is not entirely one-sided. Doudna herself begins a TED talk about Crispr by saying, “Along with my colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, I invented a new technology for editing genomes….” The author of a long (and Berkeley-centric) piece about Crispr in the New York Times Magazine last year teaches at Berkeley’s journalism school, but her bio on the piece seemed to obfuscate the connection.
And of course, social media and online comments are opening a new front in this PR war. As the patent proceeding winds its way through the court over the next two years, the fight to claim credit in the public eye will go on. Ironically, an article titled “Heroes of Crispr” reminds us that scientists are not infallible heroes but people—-people with egos, big or small, and occasionally fragile.
As mentioned previously, a moratorium has been called on the new gene editing technique using the CRISPR/Cas9 system due to ethical concerns over altering genes. Essentially, biologists fear that this technique will be used in cilinical applications before the safety can be determined and ALSO are worried about ethical issues surrounding the technique of editing genes.
In light of all this, a new controversy has surfaced following the publication in Protein & Cell of work from Chinese scientists who essentially tried to delete a gene from human embryos that causes a fatal blood disorder. While the CRISPR/Cas9 system definitely has potential, the work from this group clearly shows that their current method of gene editing has several off target effects and is absolutely not ready for any sort of clinical trial.
NPR summarizes the whole ordeal:
For the first time, scientists have edited DNA in human embryos, a highly controversial step long considered off limits.
Junjiu Huang and his colleagues at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, performed a series of experiments involving 86 human embryos to see if they could make changes in a gene known as HBB, which causes the sometimes fatal blood disorder beta-thalassemia.
The report, in the journal Protein & Cell, was immediately condemned by other scientists and watchdog groups, who argue the research is unsafe, premature and raises disturbing ethical concerns.
“No researcher should have the moral warrant to flout the globally widespread policy agreement against modifying the human germline,” Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, a watchdog group, wrote in an email to Shots. “This paper demonstrates the enormous safety risks that any such attempt would entail, and underlines the urgency of working to forestall other such efforts. The social dangers of creating genetically modified human beings cannot be overstated.”
George Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard, agreed.
“Their data reinforces the wisdom of the calls for a moratorium on any clinical practice of embryo gene editing, because current methods are too inefficient and unsafe,” he wrote in an email. “Further, there needs to be careful consideration not only of the safety but also of the social and ethical implications of applying this technology to alter our germ lines.”
Scientists have been able to manipulate DNA for years. But it’s long been considered taboo to make changes in the DNA in a human egg, sperm or embryo because those changes could become a permanent part of the human genetic blueprint. One concern is that it would be unsafe: Scientists could make a mistake, which could introduce a new disease that would be passed down for generations. And there’s also fears it this could lead to socially troubling developments, such as “designer babies,” in which parents can pick and choose the traits of their children.
The Chinese researchers say they tried this to try to refine a new technique called CRISPR/Cas9, which many scientists are excited about it because it makes it much easier to edit DNA. The procedure could enable scientists to do all sorts of things, including possibly preventing and curing diseases. So the Chinese scientists tried using CRISPR/Cas9 to fix a gene known as the HBB gene, which causes beta thallasemia.
The work was done on 86 very early embryos that weren’t viable, in order to minimize some of the ethical concerns. Only 71 of the embryos survived, and just 28 were successfully edited. But the process also frequently created unintended mutations in the embryos’ DNA.
“Taken together, our data underscore the need to more comprehensively understand the mechanisms of CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing in human cells, and support the notion that clinical applications of the CRISPR system may be premature at this stage,” the Chinese scientists wrote.
Rumors about this research have been circulating for weeks, prompting several prominent groups of scientists to publish appeals for a moratorium on doing this sort of thing.
In the wake of the report from the Chinese scientists, several of these researchers reiterated their call for a moratorium. Some said they hoped the difficulties that Huang and his colleagues encountered might discourage other scientists from attempting anything similar.
“The study simply underscores the point that the technology is not ready for clinical application in the human germline,” Jennifer Doudna, the University of California, Berkeley, scientist who developed CRISPR, wrote in an email. “And that application of the technology needs to be on hold pending a broader societal discussion of the scientific and ethical issues surrounding such use.”
But there are already reports that Huang’s group and possibly others in China continue to try editing the genes in human embryos.
“We should brace for a wave of these papers, and I worry that if one is published with a more positive spin, it might prompt some IVF clinics to start practicing it, which in my opinion would be grossly premature and dangerous,” Daley says.
What do YOU think about the CRISPR/Cas9 technology? Should a moratorium be placed? Does the technology show promise for curing disease in the future? Or is this whole thing unethical? Share your opinions in the comments or tweet at us @CauseScience1.