November 25, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Who leaked Mitalipov CRISPR human embryo paper?

The new CRISPR human embryo paper from Shoukhrat Mitalipov is stirring things up, but then there’s also the murky back story as to how the news of this as yet unpublished paper got leaked in the first place. The actual paper is still not out and from what I understand hasn’t even been officially released by Nature in embargoed form to journalists. So what the heck happened?

Specific details of the Mitalipov paper popped up a couple of days ago on Tech Review and on a UK news outlet (both by the same author, Steve Connor) perhaps as much as a full week before the paper is set to come out. Leaks at the White House and leaks in science?

You can see the “iNews” front page at right. Connor’s piece in Tech Review in my view was a bit too upbeat about the manuscript in terms of “safety” in particular, but I haven’t even seen the manuscript so I can’t be sure and Connor’s scoop on this admittedly was interesting. I’m excited to read the actual CRISPR human embryo paper too and without it much of what is out there remains somewhat unclear.CRISPR human embryo

We all want to know more about the data, but many seem now to be asking the same kind of bigger picture question too, ‘who leaked it?’

In his iNews piece, Connor quotes at least one anonymous source:

“Although Mitalipov and his colleagues are under a strict confidentiality agreement with a leading scientific journal, which has scheduled to publish the work next month [August], we understand from other sources that the study breaks new ground in demonstrating the feasibility of creating genetically modified babies. “I’ve heard Mitalipov has done it. He’s successfully done genetic modification of human embryos. The quality of the work was high,” said one senior scientist who wished to remain anonymous.”

Connors also quoted a Salk Institute scientist, apparently a co-author with Mitalipov, by name about the paper in the Tech Review piece:

“Reached by Skype, Mitalipov declined to comment on the results, which he said are pending publication. But other scientists confirmed the editing of embryos using CRISPR. “So far as I know this will be the first study reported in the U.S.,” says Jun Wu, a collaborator at the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California, who played a role in the project.”

I asked myself, “How would anyone know to contact this one particular person Jun Wu regarding an unpublished paper not even released by the journal in the first place?”

It’s also notable that Connor’s quote says “scientists” as in plural.

The apparent fact that Nature has not even officially released embargoed copies of the paper to the press and won’t do so until early next week  means that no embargo was broken since no embargo yet exists (weird situation, huh?), but something unusual happened here.

I reached out to Connor, but he was unable to discuss sources regarding this story, which is totally understandable.

Does it really even matter if an important science paper or its key findings are leaked out a few days or a week in advance? If it does matter (and gut feeling is that it does on some levels), what are the risks to science and scientists? Or is it more about the journal itself maintaining control of the timing and the initial media coverage?

What do you think?

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