Concerns surface on Chinese paper on genetic modification of human embryos

The paper that came out Wednesday from a research group in China reporting the first genetic modification of human embryos has sparked a lot of discussion. Some concerns about this paper have surfaced.

GM human embryo review

2-day review? The paper (HT to John Borghi) was in review only from March 30-April 1 — so at most 48 hours. Really? That certainly raises a red flag of inadequate or absent peer review. That kind of “review” in the past with high-profile papers has been associated with a high risk of errors being found later in such papers. I’m not saying that will happen here, but it wouldn’t shock me.

The journal? The paper was also published in the journal, Protein & Cell, which Buzzfeed reports is partially owned by the Chinese government. Could there be some kind of COI there? Also, why was the paper reportedly rejected at more rigorous journals? There have been suggestions that reviewers raised ethical issues, but this remains unclear.

Rushed as evidenced by striking typo. The paper’s abstract has a pretty bad typo in the abstract (emphasis mine) suggesting issues with preparation and peer review again:

Taken together, our work highlights the pressing need to further improve the fidelity and specificity of the CRISPR/Cas9 platform, a prerequisite for any clinical applications of CRSIPR/Cas9-mediated editing.

Of course anyone can make a typo and I certainly do on a regular basis in emails or draft blog posts, but in a published paper abstract?

Unnecessary and premature? Another question to ask here is whether doing these studies specifically in human embryos was at all necessary or provided novel insights specifically because it was done in human embryos (as opposed to limiting the work to say just 293 cells as they did in part of the paper). So far, I don’t see much if anything that has been gained from using human embryos here other than maybe a hint of unique DNA repair. Jennifer Doudna has raised that kind of concern with the paper:

“I don’t see the value in working with human embryos right now. There’s a lot to be learned by working in other systems,” she says. In her view, the Huang paper provided little new scientific insight and seemed intended to “attract attention.”

The bottom line seems to be a final question of whether publishing this paper now and including human embryos was prudent given all the circumstances. I’m on the fence.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Concerns surface on Chinese paper on genetic modification of human embryos

  1. this paper specifically and in general CRISPR frenzy among ‘us scientist’ is dangerous. After MCR paper…/1300… now folks wants to play with human genome.. if one wants to study the benefits of CRISPR use hIPS lines (which is very legitimate approach).. however, I am not sure if we are ready to fiddle with human genome.. devil lies in details and these are still early days of CRISPR.. I ll say proceed with caution..

  2. Sometimes papers need to be resubmitted to deal with an authorship issue, so content is all OK and it looks like a rapid approval. I have one that was dealt like this that looks like it was accepted 7 days after submission. In reality it was 6 months.

  3. Re: the typo. Surely a major typo (like this one) in the abstract looks like things were rushed. So I’ll make a point that is way out of the line of the discussion and far less of an issue than the fact that we are tinkering with human genomes: I think editing has gone downhill at virtually all journals in the past 15 years. I know an editor can be responsible for content and not the last comma and dotted i, but still…. a bit more dedication to the spelling and grammar end of things wouldn’t hurt anyone.

  4. Another indication of how modern science,especially the life sciences, is driven by wanting to be the first. Not that I blame us, the system is rigged that we are judged purely based on this fact, rather than just saying ‘hey you seem smart have a professorship’.

    • Callum, don’t forget the ‘relay race’ aspect too. Scientists that have the “hmm, that’s odd” moment that kick the whole line of enquiry off very rarely get recognised. It is the scientist (most likely the lab head) in the lab that runs the last trial that confirms something is safe/feasible/ready-to-publish that gets the credit for the discovery.

      People don’t remember the runner that ran the fastest 100m leg, only the one the crosses the finish line first. No wonder all the interest is in the area of translational research (which sounds much cooler than ‘riding on the coat-tails of others’).

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