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Row breaks out over 'official history' of CRISPR

25 January 2016
Appeared in BioNews 836

An article published in the journal Cell, providing an account of the discovery of the genome-editing technology CRISPR, has sparked fierce disagreement between some of the leading scientists involved in developing the technology.

In an article entitled 'The Heroes of CRISPR', Professor Eric Lander, head of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, outlined the 30-year journey of CRISPR – from the discovery of an 'obscure' microbial system in a Spanish salt marsh, and even earlier bacteriological research by a Japanese group, to re-purposing the technique for genome engineering, a breakthrough which has made international headlines and is now the focus of biotech start-ups and international ethics summits.

However, according to MIT Technology Review, what Professor Lander didn't mention is the ongoing, multi-million dollar patent dispute between the Broad Institute and the University of California, Berkeley (see BioNews 835). UC Berkeley, which claims that the technology was first co-invented by Professor Jennifer Doudna and Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is now Director of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, is contesting patent rights that were granted to Professor Feng Zhang at the Broad.

In addition, some Twitter comments have highlighted that, in the article, Professor Lander emphasised the role of Professor Zhang, while downplaying the role of Professor Doudna. The Independent observes that Professor Zhang was allotted a full page in the eight-page article, while Professor Doudna was mentioned 'almost in passing in one or two paragraphs'.

Professor Doudna, who has herself indicated that she plans to issue a response to the article, claims that the article also includes factual errors. She told The Independent: 'Dr Lander shared only a small excerpt of his article with me before publication, and declined to say where the piece would be published or to provide the complete draft of the text.'

'I did not have a chance to read or provide comments on many sections describing my lab's research and interactions with colleagues, and those descriptions are factually incorrect,' she said.

Wired magazine has stated that Professors Zhang and George Church, who is also affiliated with the Board, confirmed they had fact-checked what Professor Lander wrote about their work. The publication then points out that Professor Church had issued a list of corrections to Cell, one of which disputed Professor Lander's claim that Professor Doudna required his assistance to get CRISPR to work in human cells.

In a statement to The Independent, Professor Lander claims that he shared the manuscript with a number of scientists. He says that Professor Doudna declined to comment on the historical statements, but did confirm information about her personal background.

Wired magazine also points out that Professor Doudna's TED talk on CRISPR last year began: 'A few years ago with my colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, I invented a new technology for editing genomes...'

A Scientist's Contested History of CRISPR
MIT Technology Review |  19 January 2016
Crispr-Cas9: Bitter row breaks out over 'official history' of gene-editing breakthrough
The Independent |  20 January 2016
"Heroes of CRISPR" Disputed
The Scientist |  19 January 2016
Internet Outrage Is Shaping the Battle Over Crispr
Wired |  20 January 2016
The Heroes of CRISPR
Cell |  14 January 2016
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20 February 2017 - by Ryan Ross 
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