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Journal responds to controversy over embryo gene-editing paper

The journal that days ago published the first-ever paper on an attempt to genetically modify human embryos has come out in defense of its decision and rebuffed claims that the paper was not adequately peer reviewed.

The paper appeared online on 18 April in Protein & Cell, which is co-published by Springer and an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education. Junjiu Huang and colleagues at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou describe their efforts to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology to alter a gene in abnormal human embryos. Their gene-editing effort was not very successful and introduced many unintentional mutations.

The paper has touched off a furor from scientists and others who have called for a moratorium on any efforts to establish a pregnancy with such a genetically modified embryo. Many have deemed Huang’s experiment unethical, and Huang himself has reportedly said that the paper was rejected by Science and Nature in part for ethical reasons.

This week, Protein & Cell defended its decision to publish the paper. An editorial posted online on 28 April says the journal’s objective in publishing the study was “the sounding of an alarm to draw immediate attention to the urgent need to rein in applications of gene-editing technologies, especially in the human germ cells or embryos.”

Protein & Cell Editor-in-Chief Zihe Rao also responded to allegations made online and to Science that because the paper was accepted 2 days after it was submitted, the work was not adequately peer reviewed. "Due to the scientific value and ethical dispute of this study, we not only conducted scientific peer-review, but also consulted related publishing and ethical experts," wrote Rao, a structural biologist at Nankai University in Tianjin, in an e-mail to Science. "The authors also revised the manuscript based on our suggestions," he added. He explains that the journal typically reviews submitted papers within 2 weeks, but for significant work they expedite the process. (A Springer representative tells Nature News that review went quickly in part because Huang and his colleagues also submitted the peer-review comments provided to them by Nature and Science and had revised the paper with them in mind.)

The paper has split scientists, with consensus on the need for a moratorium on clinical applications but disagreement about whether to support basic research on editing genes in human sperm, eggs, or embryos. A recent commentary in Nature from industry-allied scientists called for a halt to even basic studies of the method on human embryos. And yesterday, the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) issued a statement calling for a voluntary moratorium on “all manipulation of preimplantation human embryos by genome editing.” The newly published results “make further attempts to edit human embryos dangerous and unethical,” SDB asserted.

With reporting by Dennis Normile.