Geneticist Embroiled in Conflict of Interest Controversy

UPDATED: January 29, 2016, at 11:10 a.m.

The founding director of the Broad Institute has come under fire for publishing an article that critics charge fails to disclose a conflict of interest and understates the contributions of women in developing a biotechnology.

The article in question—published in the science magazine Cell and written by famous geneticist Eric Lander—outlines the history of CRISPR, a gene editing technology. Critics allege that Lander did not disclose a conflict of interest in the story: the Broad Institute is currently embroiled in a CRISPR-related patent dispute with the University of California.

Critics also charge that Lander wrote out the role of women, graduate students, and post-doctoral students from CRISPR’s history, and that he downplayed in particular contributions of University of California at Berkeley professor Jennifer A. Doudna, French researcher Emmanuelle M. Charpentier, and Harvard professor George M. Church.

Lander, who was traveling abroad, was not available for comment. Broad spokesperson Lee McGuire said that Cell’s conflict of interest policy applied only to personal, and not institutional conflicts of interest, and that Lander had disclosed the institutional interest to Cell. Lander has previously disclosed the conflict of interest involving the Broad in a July article for the New England Journal of Medicine, according to McGuire.

Cell Press spokesperson Joseph Caputo said his publication is reevaluating its conflict of interest policy and has reached to Doudna and Charpentier to discuss any factual inaccuracies in Lander’s article. He declined to comment on whether any corrections would be posted to the article.

In an email sent to Broad Institute affiliates Thursday, Lander wrote that his piece was part of the magazine’s “Perspectives” section, which includes personal opinions.

“And, when scientific discovery is also the subject of patent disputes (as is the case with UC Berkeley and Broad/MIT), intellectual disagreements can, as here, give rise to vigorous online discussion,” Lander wrote.

Berkeley professor Michael B. Eisen ’89, who published a Monday blog post on Lander titled “The Villain of CRISPR,” said he thinks Lander treats Doudna and Charpentier as side notes in CRISPR’s history, partially on the basis of gender.

Lander’s colleagues at Harvard and the Broad Institute— including Law School professor Jeannie C. Suk and longtime Lander advisee Pardis C. Sabeti— characterize the attacks on Lander as baseless.

“The kind of dedication that I saw firsthand, that Eric Lander had, to supporting and furthering the career of his mentees who were women—that is utterly inconsistent with some idea that he is erasing women’s role in science,” Suk said. Sapeti characterized Lander as an “extraordinary mentor” who pushed many women to have a strong voice at the Broad Institute, and said that the CRISPR narrative was not an issue of gender.

Still, Church, the Harvard professor, said he thinks observers did not magnify concerns about whether Lander was the appropriate person to write a history of CRISPR and whether he and his editors did enough fact-checking for the article.

“I think that you would have to be an amazing diplomat to be so embroiled in an issue on one side and try to write a history,” Church said, referring to the current patent dispute. Additionally, Church said Lander and others in the broader scientific world have not paid enough attention to contributions of postdocs and graduate students to science.

Last week, Lander posted an online comment to his paper, clarifying the pioneering role of early-career scientists, including those in Church’s own lab.

Church said that he thought Lander would survive the ongoing controversy. He added that as co-chair of U.S. President Barack Obama’s council of advisors on science and technology, Lander is held to a higher standard of academic conduct than others.

—C. Ramsey Fahs contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Luca F. Schroeder can be reached at luca.schroeder@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @lucaschroeder.

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