Last year I heard from several sources that there somewhere between 3-5 unpublished manuscripts reporting the use of CRISPR gene targeting in human embryos being shopped around at various journals in addition to the one that had been published. Since that time we’ve seen a grand total of one additional paper reporting on CRISPR of human embryos.
So what gives?
Were the sources wrong?
I don’t think so and I believe there are additional labs pursuing research on the use of CRISPR in human embryos.
Depending on the context, the oversight, and the training of those involved, there may be nothing wrong with these studies at all. In fact, they could be positive and teach us a lot if the teams are careful. However, CRISPR’ing human embryos without a good rationale and appropriate oversight is unwise. I also cannot imagine supporting use of CRISPR with the intent to make a modified new human being for many years to come if ever. You can learn more about the history of genetic modification and my views as well as those of CRISPR leaders in my new book, GMO Sapiens.
So where are all the CRISPR human embryo papers? I can think of a few main reasons why we haven’t seen more so far.
Editors as gatekeepers? One possible reason we haven’t seen more CRISPR’d human embryo papers is that journal editors are reluctant to publish them and are acting as essentially gatekeepers for this kind of work. If true, what are the potential risks or benefits of such a de facto filtering system and what is the basis by which the editors are making such decisions?
Outcomes of first 2 pubs discouraged more? Another possibility is that other research teams have been discouraged by the first two papers reporting CRISPR use in human embryos. I can see at least two levels at which those considering working and publishing in this area might be reluctant to proceed because of the first two papers. On the one hand, both papers reported technical challenges with this research, which was discouraging. On the other hand, both papers were heavily criticized by some.
NAS Meeting deterrent? In between the two papers, the National Academy of Sciences held its big DC meeting that concluded with a somewhat moderate warning that it would be unwise for people to use CRISPR in the human germline, but that research limited to the lab is OK. Could that have discouraged people from doing CRISPR in human embryos and publishing it? I kind of doubt it.
Tough reviewers? Finally, it is possible that more papers reporting the use of CRISPR in human embryos are coming soon, but reviewers rightly have high expectations for these papers to use the latest CRISPR technology and be very rigorous.
It could also be some combination of these things together or some other factor. One way or another, more of these papers are coming sooner or later. I hope that the research will have been done with proper approvals, oversight, and ethics training plus that these papers teach us new, important things both about human development and about CRISPR itself. See my ABCD plan for responsible use of CRISPR in a human embryo context.