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CRISPR History Piece Criticized

The Broad Institute's Eric Lander gave a low-down in Cell last week of the history of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing tool and who did what to develop this bacterial system into a powerful tool.

The thing is, as many have pointed out on Twitter, PubPeer, and elsewhere, there's a patent dispute flaring up between CRISPR developers and their institutions: the Broad Institute and the University of California.

Just last week, GenomeWeb reported that the US Patent and Trademark Office, which awarded the Broad a dozen CRISPR-related patents, declared an interference proceeding to settle some of these claims. The outcome of the proceeding hinges largely on who is shown to have invented the approach first.

Critics argue that Lander's piece downplayed the contributions of UC-Berkeley's Jennifer Doudna. Berkeley's Michael Eisen tweets that "it's a deliberate effort to undermine Doudna and [the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research's Emmanuelle] Charpentier's patent claims and prize-worthiness." (Eisen includes a link to his conflicts — he mentions that Berkeley is involved in the CRISPR patent case — in his Twitter profile.)

Further, Doudna says in a comment on the article's entry at PubMed that the "description of my lab's research and our interactions with other investigators is factually incorrect." According to Technology Review's Antonio Regalado, she also submitted the comment to Cell though it has yet to be published.

In addition, Regalado wonders why Cell selected someone involved in the patent dispute — Lander is the director of the Broad and stands to gain from it being awarded the CRISPR patents — to review the tool and not acknowledge the conflict of interest.

In a comment on the Cell piece, the journal says Lander filled out a COI form that said he had no personal financial conflicts and that he acknowledged that the Broad Institute, MIT, and Harvard have patents and patent applications related to CRISPR. However, the journal's policy only covers personal conflicts of interest, and it thus didn't publish the institutional-level conflict.

In a statement sent to The Scientist, Lander confirms that he disclosed "both real and perceived conflicts to the journal." He adds that he also asked Doudna in December to fact-check material about her work included in his perspective piece. She, meanwhile, tells The Scientist that she was only sent an excerpt.

At the same time, Harvard Medical School's George Church tells The Scientist that Lander sent him the preprint just before the piece was published. He says he also uncovered errors that have yet to be corrected.

(The Scientist article was written by Tracy Vence, a former editor at GenomeWeb.)