Scientists behaving deviously

There are some scientific technologies that rapidly become ubiquitious and indispensible, and they become the engine that drives tremendous amounts of research, win Nobel prizes, and are eventually taken for granted. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is one example: PCR is routine in molecular biology now, but I remember when PCR machines were magical objects of reverence, and you were cutting edge when you used one. No more; I actually tell my senior students presenting their final thesis presentation that they don't have to explain what PCR is anymore, everyone knows what it is and how it works and what it is used for.

The new technology of today that is going to be showered with awards and money and accolades and become totally ubiquitous is CRISPR/Cas. This technique exploits the molecular biology of a prokaryotic adaptive immune system to target gene sequences in living cells and swap in a different sequence -- it's a mechanism for going into a cell and editing its genome selectively. This is huge. It has gigantic implications -- people are already fretting over the ethical use of a way to modify people's genes, even before it has been applied in any practical way. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is going to be the universal tool for experimental molecular biology for the next several decades, possibly indefinitely.

So there's a lot at stake. There are reputations to be won and patents to reap colossal profits and a Nobel for someone is practically guaranteed. The question is, who?

This is real science. It can't be traced to one obsessed genius slaving away in a dark basement lab, suddenly shouting "Eureka!" and producing the answer. It's a long, gradual development with multiple players in many countries all around the world, putting bits and pieces together and eventually, a few people standing on the work of many others to produce a useful process that can be implemented everywhere, and it's usually those last few integrative steps that get all the recognition. Our perception of who those deserving people are can be influenced by whoever writes the history of the development of the technique.

Seriously, people…this is a great example of the power of history.

So a paper came out this year -- this past week, even -- recounting The Heroes of CRISPR. Even the title gives away the purpose. Now we will truly know who the dedicated, deserving scientists behind this great work are.

Except…it's written by Eric Lander. Lander is not a name I really associate with the pioneering work behind CRISPR, but he certainly is a well-known, big name, so it might be appropriate that someone outside the core of the field but with a prestigious reputation should summarize the history of the research. He's a very smart fellow with a successful career.

Except…he's the head of the Broad Institute, which is one of the factions currently embroiled in a patent dispute over CRISPR. Uh-oh.

Except…he doesn't disclose this conflict of interest in the paper. Double uh-oh.

Except…when reading the paper, as an outsider myself with a strong interest in the technology, I was a little confused by who gets a solid mention. I appreciated the deep background in the beginnings of the story, but was baffled by some of the names. Maybe it's because I have not been closely following every step in the development, but George Church is made prominent…but I've never associated him with the CRISPR story. The names I was most familiar with, Doudna and Charpentier, are mentioned, but they're buried like secondary players.

This all makes sense when you learn that Church is also a well-known member of the Broad Institute, and that Doudna and Charpentier are the primary competitors with the Broad Institute for the potentially immensely lucrative patent on this technique. My uh-ohs have just gone exponential and flown off the chart.

This paper has suddenly acquired the aroma of self-serving bullshit. This is not good. It's not good for Lander, and it's not good for the field, and it's not good for the two women, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who have done so much of the recent work.

Fortunately, people noticed. The Scientist is reporting on the growing firestorm. Michael Eisen has been rallying the masses. Nathaniel Comfort has an excellent summary of the problems.

This story is going to get nastier, and I expect that, if justice is served (it often isn't), Cell will have to publish a retraction of the article. Of real concern is that both Doudna and Charpentier have weighed in with comments on PubMed Commons that directly refute a claim made by Lander.

JENNIFER DOUDNA 2016 Jan 17 10:31 p.m.
From Cell editor: “…the author engaged in substantial fact checking directly with the relevant individuals.”
However, the description of my lab’s research and our interactions with other investigators is factually incorrect, was not checked by the author and was not agreed to by me prior to publication.

Please picture a wall of unbroken "uh-ohs" descending in a cascade for page after page after page below.

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The updates to the article in "The Scientist" seem to show that George Church is doing the right thing. He's disputing his own institutions claims, saying that he tried to address errors and was ignored, and giving credit to younger scientists who actually did the work. A breath of fresh air.

By Joshua Martin (not verified) on 20 Jan 2016 #permalink

At root it comes down to: who gets the pile of money?

All of this competition for patents, is equivalent to frictional loss in a machine.