CRISPR controversy reveals how badly journals handle conflicts of interest

A scientific kerfuffle emerged this week when one of the world’s most prominent geneticists published what was meant to be a definitive history of CRISPR — the hot new gene-editing technique — but ended up being what many consider a partisan distortion of scientific ideas and events.

Historical accuracy aside, the dispute raised another issue: just how poorly science deals with conflicts of interest, which are typically disclosed in presentations and journal articles — or are at least supposed to be.

The rationale: Studies funded by drug makers tend to favor the companies’ products, and readers should be aware of any financial conflicts so that they can judge whether potential biases could color a given paper’s conclusions.

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Alas, no disclosures were published in the paper at the heart of the latest controversy. And critics are crying foul.

But before we get into that, first some background. As STAT reported this week, Eric Lander, head of the Broad Institute, wrote an essay in the journal Cell describing the dozen or so scientists who first discovered the CRISPR system in bacteria and then repurposed it to edit genomes.

Lander’s Broad colleague, Feng Zhang, was the first to publish a paper demonstrating the use of CRISPR in human and mouse cells. He has since received more than a dozen potentially lucrative patents related to CRISPR. However, the University of California, Berkeley, says its faculty, not Zhang, made the key discoveries. The US Patent and Trademark Office has agreed to arbitrate the dispute in March.

The money at stake in this clash of academic titans is hard to ignore. Editas Medicine, which licensed the Broad’s patents, is directly jockeying with CRISPR Therapeutics and Intellia Therapeutics — two firms based on the patents of UC Berkeley and its partners — to put CRISPR technologies to therapeutic use.

Whoever wins the foundational patents could earn millions if not billions of dollars in royalties. So, even if Lander does not have a direct financial stake in Editas, the institution he leads, and by extension Lander himself, has much to gain in how the history books are written.

So it seems clear that at the very least, the Broad Institute has a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed. And yet the journal article included no conflict of interest statement, an omission that some found glaring.

It turns out, however, that the lack of disclosure in Cell wasn’t really Lander’s fault. Lander told STAT: “As Cell has stated, I disclosed both real and perceived conflicts to the journal,” including that he has “no personal financial interest (which is the subject of Cell’s COI statements) in CRISPR technology” and that “Broad, MIT, and Harvard have patents and patent applications.”

Cell is hardly alone when it comes to poor disclosure practices. An analysis of 50 reports in the British Journal of Dermatology by Reuters Health — which, full disclosure, one of us (I.O.) used to run — found glaring omissions of industry ties by authors of a quarter of the articles.

For its part, Cell said it has no comment on whether it will issue a correction to Lander’s piece, but that it “will be re-evaluating how best to handle institutional conflicts of interest.”

Good for the journal, then, that we have a solution to offer — one we’re stealing from other journals.

Why not just publish conflict of interest statements like Lander’s in full? That’s what the Annals of Internal Medicine does; here’s an example using the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors form.

Let readers decide what’s important, and whether it’s accurate that the well-paid head of a research institution has no monetary stake in a potentially massive pool of royalty payments. We may differ on whether Lander has a personal financial interest given the potential windfall for the Broad, but that’s a different question from whether he disclosed what was going on.

Heck, just include a link to a centralized database of such conflict of interest statements akin to Dollars for Docs. We think there’s no conflict to say that would be in everyone’s interest.

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Each prize elevates three researchers at most into the pantheon of glory — and relegates the work of their collaborators to the unmentioned appendices.