Science hype is one of the more troublesome issues in our field today especially at its interface with the media, and unfortunately a ‘great’ example of that came this past week in a headline from the Daily Mail on the new CRISPR of human embryos paper from Kathy Niakan’s group in the UK.
Although Niakan’s group was generally appropriately cautious in their new Nature paper about potential clinical implications of their work and didn’t hype possible reproductive use of CRISPR in humans at all, they did mention their belief that their work could positively impact IVF in the future. While that’s somewhat debatable, it wasn’t an over-the-top claim and I didn’t interpret it to mean using CRISPR in human embryos for reproduction.
But the Daily Mail kinda went bonko with the Niakan paper. In bold, large type they made many inaccurate claims all in one headline and hyped clinical impact of the paper (see screenshot).
First of all, they called the Niakan paper a “Fertility breakthrough” when in fact the impact of this paper on fertility is at best unclear at this point and there may be none. How does one define a science breakthrough? Not this way in terms of fertility.
Then the Daily Mail also, in another example of science hype here, referred indirectly to OCT4 (the target of CRISPR disruption by Niakan’s group) as a “master gene” that the scientists were able to “find”. Uh, OCT4 has been around a very long time.
To make matters worse, the newspaper then said incorrectly that OCT4 is “key to IVF success.” It is? Huh, I didn’t see that. Maybe because you need OCT4 (and probably many other genes) just for any embryo to later develop?
Finally, the Daily Mail was also wrong that this was “the first time” that DNA was edited in human embryos. There have been at least four other papers that have already done gene editing of this kind in general. You can see some examples of these discussed by me in this search result from this blog. Niakan’s pub was the first time that a group intentionally knocked out a gene in human embryos via gene editing, but that’s not what the newspaper said in the headline. Maybe they’d say it was the first time specifically that 41 embryos were edited?
For all these reasons, so far in 2017, the Daily Mail gets the dubious honor of the worst CRISPR media headline of the year with this blatant example of science hype.