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A social media war just erupted over the biotech innovation of the century

Biologist Eric Lander, head of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., in 2003. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

The war for control of the century's biggest biotech innovation has moved from the patent office to the Internet.

Spectators in the bicoastal battle over CRISPR, a revolutionary DNA-editing technology that promises to change how we treat disease, vented their grievances on Twitter this week, just as a high-stakes patent case for control of the technology is revving up.

The tweetstorm erupted when the leader of an institution vying for control of the technology published a lengthy historical account of CRISPR in a top scientific journal, an account that one critic (who happens to work at the opposing institution) described as repellant "propaganda."

To critics, the big problem is that "Heroes of CRISPR" is a history told by a person with a dog in the fight over who created it. The author, Eric Lander, is head of the Broad Institute, a Harvard- and MIT-affiliated research institution that is now in an all-out patent battle against the University of California, Berkeley, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

Control of CRISPR, biotech’s most promising breakthrough, is in dispute

To put this in perspective for non-scientists, Lander is a powerful voice in the field -- a former leader of the human genome project, a co-chair of the committee that advises President Obama on science and technology matters, and a charismatic communicator who has turned his institution from a start-up to a massive research heavyweight over a decade. In other words, he is influential and people read his work, including this paper.

The backlash begins

Lander's history of CRISPR, published in Cell last week, instantly sparked angry tweets, thoughtful blogs and harsh criticism. Some argued that his version of the history diminishes the role that Berkeley and European collaborators played, while emphasizing the role of the Broad scientists. Three of the principals have raised questions about factual accuracy. Other critics have questioned -- on Twitter and a well-read online bulletin board focused on discussion of published science studies -- why the article didn't carry a disclosure of Lander's conflict of interest.

Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley scientist who, with her collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier, each won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their work on CRISPR, posted an online comment on the journal piece saying there were errors.

"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," Doudna wrote.

Charpentier, who now directs the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, also posted a comment:

"I regret that the description of my and collaborators’ contributions is incomplete and inaccurate. The author did not ask me to check statements regarding me or my lab. 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.

CRISPR's Nobel Prize problem

George Church, the Harvard Medical School scientist who applied CRISPR to the cells of mammals, similarly disputed the veracity of Lander's account in an e-mail. He said that contrary to Lander's story, he was not aware of particular efforts at the Broad Institute when his lab began to work on part of the CRISPR problem. He disputed whether Doudna said she received "assistance" from him as the article claims. He also noted that junior scientists who did the key work have been "systematically" left out of Lander's story.

The paper instantly generated discussion among outside scientists, too.

"Personally, given that the whole thing is before the US Patent and Trademark Office, I probably would have said something like 'Gosh, I’d love to comment, but I really shouldn’t right now,'" scientist Derek Lowe, who was not involved in the invention of CRISPR, wrote on his blog, In the Pipeline.

In an emailed statement, Lander defended his piece and said he disclosed Broad's patent dispute to the journal, Cell.

He said that he reached out to Doudna in mid-December and asked for her input, but that she declined to be involved.

"When I attempted to get input with Dr. Doudna, she stated clearly that she did not wish to comment on the development of CRISPR technology. I respected her position and moved forward with the review," Lander wrote in the email. "I had a long conversation with Dr. Church and later called him to check facts. When the review appeared, he sent me some factual questions that we agreed to discuss. I am glad to do so."

Doudna told The Scientist that Lander contacted her but refused to share the sections of the article that described her lab's contributions.

"I am confident that if Eric had shared a draft with Jennifer or me before final submission, the fact-checking process would have been easier," Church said.

He said that Lander had responded to his factual accuracy concerns privately, but not yet made any corrections online.

"Dr. Lander confirmed that he sought input from each scientist about the discussion of their work. The peer reviewers were also asked to comment on balance and fairness and any comments they provided back were addressed in revision," Cell spokesman Joseph Caputo said in an email. He said the journal only publishes a conflict of interest statement when there is a personal conflict of interest -- not an institutional one, as exists here. He said the journal would examine such conflicts next time it evaluates its policy.

Skillful storytelling

The question that underlies the whole dispute, however, may be more profound and subtle: Did Lander's particular method of storytelling downplay the contributions of Doudna and Charpentier?

Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, did a close reading of Lander's account on his blog, Genotopia, to see if critiques of the piece held up.

"I found a number of instances, many instances, I will say, in which subtle rhetorical techniques were used that did seem to me to have the tendency to bury Doudna’s contributions," Comfort said in an interview with The Post.

For example, Comfort notes that Lander went back to CRISPR's earliest origins and gave credit to many more scientists than are usually named -- a seemingly generous move.

But by zooming out so far, Comfort argues, Lander actually makes Doudna and Charpentier's contributions seem smaller -- by putting them in a crowd of scientists. Their names appear in the middle of paragraphs, he notes, whereas the key Broad scientist, Feng Zhang, appears as the protagonist of a lengthier section of the history.

Science seems so much about cold facts and technical knowledge, but in issues of credit, storytelling matters, Comfort says -- which is why he calls Lander's account a "whig history," a term used to describe using history as a political tool to justify the present. The term, he explains, was originally deployed to describe writing about English history from the Whig point of view.

"Eric Lander is a very smart fellow, and he’s a very skillful communicator, so this is not some hack who accidentally made it come out in an awkward way," Comfort said. "It’s hard to believe he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he did so very skillfully."