19 December 2019
By Adam Vaughan
A year ago, the world was reeling from the news that a woman in China had given birth to two genetically edited girls. Many questions remain over the episode, including details of the experiment on the “CRISPR babies”, what happened to a second pregnancy and the fate and whereabouts of the Chinese researcher behind the trial, He Jiankui.
But recent revelations that He’s paper was sent to two major scientific journals also raise questions for scientific publishers, the traditional gatekeepers of science who are increasingly pressured to be ethical police too.
Nature had the paper in November 2018, before the experiment became public at the end of the month, and it was also submitted to JAMA, it was reported earlier this month. Nature told New Scientist it neither confirmed nor denied it had received the paper. JAMA didn’t respond.
The precise timelines are fuzzy, but it is unlikely that any journal could have prevented He from proceeding with a second pregnancy. Researchers with knowledge of the pregnancy said in July that it was around full-term, suggesting that the fetus was conceived before editors ever saw the paper.
But should the journals have taken greater action to alert authorities over potential ethical issues in He’s manuscript?
The paper seemed to have ethical approval, but an investigation by Chinese authorities later concluded that the approval certificate was “fake”. The journal editors couldn’t have known or discovered that. “One of the things a journal does have a challenge with is, you’re not in a position to verify [ethics] approval,” says Richard Sever at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York.
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Kiran Musunuru at the University of Pennsylvania says he thinks Nature could have contacted He’s university in Shenzhen about the ethical issues. We don’t know if that happened. A spokesperson for Nature says its policy is to alert “relevant institutions” of potential ethical issues. Both journals are members of the Committee on Publication Ethics, whose guidance tells journals to raise ethical concerns with authors and, later, their employers.
On balance, Musunuru doesn’t think there was a dereliction of duty. “Nature was handling the paper just as the news of the gene-edited twins broke, so there wasn’t time for them to go through any process to address ethical concerns before those concerns were broadcast publicly worldwide,” he says. JAMA seems to have received the paper after news of the babies became public.
Researchers say journals do have a responsibility to police ethical issues, but agree that the publishers did all they could in this case. “We cannot ask journals to inform authorities and institutions each time they see something wrong in a research paper,” says John Ioannidis at Stanford University in California.
Jonathan Kimmelman at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, says journals have come under greater pressure in recent years to tackle ethical issues that other actors aren’t addressing adequately. “While I think these journals have some obligations here, there are clear limits to their obligations,” he says.
For Sever, the responsibility comes before papers even reach journals. “He Jiankui wasn’t a rogue scientist working out of his basement. That [ethical issues] should be dealt with by funders and institutions, it’s just about effective ethical oversight.”
He Jiankui believed that the 2017 US National Academy of Sciences report on human genome editing had left ethical judgements open to interpretation by not having a moratorium on the practice, says William Hurlbut at Stanford, on the basis of his numerous conversations with He.
“I repeatedly urged him to slow down and proceed only within the frame of a wider social and scientific conversation on these matters of such momentous significance for the human future,” says Hurlbut. But, with the urging of people in China and the US, He proceeded.
For Hurlbut, the lesson is this: “The matter of ethical judgement on issues of such great importance cannot be left to any one body of gatekeepers, journals or even scientific academies, but must proceed within a truly transparent and inclusive international discussion.”
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