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Antonio Regalado

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A Scientist’s Contested History of CRISPR

Eric Lander of the Broad Institute writes a history of a gene-editing technique that may be seen as partial to one side of a patent dispute.

  • January 19, 2016

History is written by the victors. But in the hard-fought battle over credit and patents to CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing technology, the victor may be whoever writes history.

Eric Lander

Last Friday, Eric Lander, the head of the influential Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, published in the journal Cell a long account of the discovery of CRISPR, a type of immune system in bacteria, and its eventual development as a potent form of gene control.

It’s a good read, as one would expect from one of the most effective communicators ever to earn a PhD.

The problem is what Cell and Lander didn’t tell readers: namely, that Broad is locked in a billion-dollar patent dispute with the University of California, Berkeley, over who should have commercial control over CRISPR-Cas9, as the editing system is known.

The omission set off an explosion of criticism on Twitter and on comment boards, with some scientists claiming that Lander’s otherwise excellent yarn made a point of subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—highlighting the role of Broad institute biologist Feng Zhang and downplaying that of Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna.

The underlying dispute rests on the fact that in 2012 Doudna’s lab, with European collaborators, was first to publish the key components of a CRISPR system able to easily cut DNA at specific spots, while Zhang’s group a few months later reported how to adapt it to human cells and make it do valuable tricks. So who really deserves the credit?

Over at the Scientist, reporter Tracy Vence has important details of the he-said-she-said over the Cell publication, including complaints by Doudna and Harvard biologist George Church that Lander’s item contains errors and that they weren’t given time to check it.

In the very same issue of Cell as Lander’s item, Doudna published a much more technical paper along with two coauthors. Although her report generated no debate, just like Lander’s item it fails to disclose her huge interest in the outcome of the CRISPR wars.

Joseph Caputo, the communications manager at Cell, told me the journal will revisit its decision-making and may print disclosures and corrections. If it does so, they will be lengthy. That is because Doudna is a cofounder of three CRISPR companies and the coauthor of several patent applications and has already won a $3 million prize for her work. Meanwhile, Broad, along with MIT and Harvard, owns several patents as well as a multimillion stake in Editas Medicine, a company that is hoping to go public in a $100 million IPO. Lander also has deep financial and personal ties to Third Rock Ventures, one of the venture capital firms that started Editas.

Given the importance of CRISPR, attempts to shape the history of its discovery shouldn’t come as a surprise. On his blog, historian Nathaniel Comfort called Lander’s outing a “Whig history”—a reference to a onetime British political party that has come to represent “a way to use history as a political tool” that “justifies the dominance of those in power.”

That could be. But to anyone who has delved into thousands of pages of patent office documents, Lander’s CRISPR tale is clearly an attempt to back up Broad’s patents, granted based on the surprise claim that Zhang hit on the technology in 2011 on his own, unbeknownst to anyone outside the institute, and before Doudna’s work was ever published.

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Zhang’s discoveries weren’t published at the time and so they are not part of the official scientific record. But they’re very important if Broad wants to hold onto its patents and score a victory (the case is now before a special board of judges). No wonder, then, that Lander might like to see them described for the first time in an important journal such as Cell.

I think that was a little Machiavellian on the part of Lander. But Doudna has not been shy to highlight her own importance and her versions of events, as in a TED talk when she said she and a colleague “invented a new technology for editing genomes called CRISPR-Cas9”—a claim of cartoon simplicity that makes even those in her camp cringe.

The truth, say some scientists, is that bacteria deserve the credit. They invented it first.

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