In a perspective piece published in Cell this week (January 14), Eric Lander, president and director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, outlined the history of achievements behind the precision gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. The problem is, the Broad is a copatentee embroiled in an intellectual property battle being investigated by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). And Lander’s Cell paper does not disclose the potential conflict of interest.
Furthermore, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley—who, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Germany, is currently locked in the patent dispute with the Broad’s Feng Zhang and colleagues—called Lander’s account “factually incorrect” in a January 17 PubMed Commons comment. Doudna wrote that Lander’s description of her lab “and our interactions with other investigators . . . was not checked by the author and was not agreed to by me prior to publication.”
In a statement emailed to The Scientist, Lander said he did disclose “both real and perceived conflicts to the journal,” including that his institution has CRISPR patents and patent applications. Lander also said he emailed Doudna in mid-December, requesting that she fact-check material to be published in his perspective.
“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,” Lander wrote. “In writing the article, I received input about the development of CRISPR from more than a dozen scientists around the world. Dr. Doudna was the only one who declined, which is unfortunate. Nonetheless, I fully respect her decision not to share her perspective. I also understand that there will be varying perspectives.”
Doudna told The Scientist that Lander did contact her on December 18, but said that he only shared an excerpt of the article. “He refused to share with me many sections concerning my lab’s research,” Doudna wrote in an email. “I never saw the entire piece until publication, and have the email correspondence to prove it. Dr. Lander should name the other scientists he received input from.”
One of those scientists was George Church, who has appointments at Harvard and the Broad and has collaborated with Zhang and others on CRISPR research. “Eric [Lander] asked me some very specific questions on 14-Dec and I offered to fact check (as I generally do),” Church wrote in an email to The Scientist. “He sent me a preprint on 13-Jan (just hours before it came out in Cell). I immediately sent him a list of factual errors, none of which have been corrected.”
PubPeer lit up with anonymous comments on the article shortly after it was published. “This is extraordinarily suspect,” one user wrote. “We are in the middle of a CRISPR patent fight, a patent fight frequently referred to as the biggest in biotech history. In the midst of this fight, Cell allows Eric Lander, who is leading an institute embroiled in said patent, decide who to highlight as a hero in these discoveries. At best, untimely, and at worst, propaganda.” Another wrote: “The paper is a bald-faced effort to stake a claim for Zhang, and the Broad stands to profit royally.”
On Twitter, Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, who on his website discloses his potential conflict when discussing CRISPR and the associated patent dispute, voiced several objections to the piece. Among other things, he wrote, the “most damaging Lander distortion is that all his 'Heroes of #CRISPR' are PIs—what happened to students & postdocs?”
The Scientist reached out to Cell Press but did not receive a response by press time.
Update 1 (January 19): After publication of this article, Church told The Scientist in an email that “as with Jennifer [Doudna], the fact-checking with me was (unnecessarily) very limited. I sent Eric [Lander] corrections early morning on Jan 14, and these have not (yet) been included in the online paper. Basic full fact-checking (as I offered in December) would have caught these earlier and with much less drama. Even at this point, these are not hard to fix, and would make a big difference.”
Among the facts Church is disputing is that he was “aware of Zhang’s efforts” when his team “set out to test crRNA-tracrRNA fusions in mammalian cells,” as Lander wrote. Furthermore, Church noted, “Prashant Mali and Luhan Yang did the testing”—not he.
Overall, Church told The Scientist,“Eric’s Cell paper systematically misses the important role of many younger researchers (heroes).”
In an email to The Scientist, Lander confirmed that Church responded to the initial fact-check correspondence. Later, “when the review appeared, he [Church] sent me some factual questions that we agreed to discuss,” Lander added. “I am glad to do so.”
Cell Press has not yet responded to questions from The Scientist about the editorial handling of the article.
Update 2 (January 19): In a statement sent to The Scientist, Cell Press spokesperson Joseph Caputo reiterated that Lander provided a conflict-of-interest (COI) statement and that, while Lander had institutional conflicts to declare, he did not have any personal financial conflicts. The publisher’s COI policy does not apply to institutional conflicts, Caputo said, so Cell did not publish a statement. “We are currently evaluating our COI policy to determine if we should extend it to include institutional COIs going forward,” Caputo wrote in an email. “I can’t comment on whether there will or won’t be changes to Dr. Lander’s piece.”
Update 3 (January 20): In a comment posted to PubMed Commons, Charpentier said she was not contacted prior to the paper’s publication. “I did not see any part of this paper prior to its submission by the author. And the journal did not involve me in the review process,” Charpentier wrote. “I regret that the description of my and collaborators’ contributions is incomplete and inaccurate.”