NATURE PODCAST

Backchat: Calls for a research moratorium, and the evolution of science reporting.

Benjamin Thompson hosts our regular roundtable discussion, with guests David Cyranoski, Alison Abbott and Heidi Ledford.

In this month’s roundtable, our reporters discuss calls to pause heritable genome editing research, and how science journalism has changed over the past 20 years.

In this episode:

00:46 Research moratoria

The birth of two gene-edited babies has led to a group of ethicists and researchers calling for a global halt to germline genome editing. Comment: Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing; Correspondence: NIH supports call for moratorium on clinical uses of germline gene editing; News: Genome-edited baby claim provokes international outcry

12:02 The evolution of science journalism

Our panel have decades of science reporting experience between them. How do they think the field has changed? Where might it go? News Feature: Science on the Silk Road: Taste for adventure (2012); News: Italian stem-cell trial based on flawed data (2013)

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Transcript

In this month’s roundtable, our reporters discuss calls to pause heritable genome editing research, and how science journalism has changed over the past 20 years.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Hello, and welcome to Backchat. If the regular Nature Podcast is a fresh-faced, young journalism student, then Backchat is very much a grizzled hack. This week on the show, we’ve got a panel of guests from across the globe and we’ll be talking about genome editing and the role of science reporting in the 21st century. I’m Benjamin Thompson and joining me in the studio are David Cyranoski…

David Cyranoski

Hi Ben. I am the Asia-Pacific correspondent for Nature, based in Shanghai.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Alison Abbott…

Alison Abbott

Hi Ben. I report for Nature from Munich in Germany.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And Heidi Ledford.

Heidi Ledford

Hi, I’m Heidi Ledford. I’m a biomedical reporter in London.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Coming up in the show, we’ll be chatting about the changing face of science journalism. Our panel have decades of combined reporting experience – how has the field evolved? Where might it end up? Firstly though, Nature has recently had a lot of coverage on how CRISPR was used to edit the genomes of two babies in China, and this was done by the researcher He Jiankui who edited these babies’ genomes to attempt to disable the genetic pathway that HIV uses to infect cells. In the wake of this, researchers and politicians have been grappling with how to prevent this happening again. David, this is something that you’ve been following closely.

David Cyranoski

Yes, we’ve been following it closely for several years and especially from 2015 when people first edited the genomes of human embryos. And there was a lot of attention drawn to it at that time because people thought well, now they’re just doing it for research, but pretty soon they’re going to be doing it for actual reproduction. And at the time everybody thought well, that’s so far off, like no one’s actually going to try to do that because it’s just a little too zany and it’s too unpredictable and dangerous. And then scientists around the world were about to meet to discuss this and how we might prevent it or what we might do to regulate it and we got this announcement that it happened, that actually someone in China had gene edited embryos and then produced two baby twin girls from it and I think what was surprising for me was how surprised scientists were. I mean this really caught them off guard and started a lot of soul-searching in the community since last November.

Heidi Ledford

Were you surprised, David, when you found out?

David Cyranoski

I was surprised. I didn’t think it was going to happen this soon, for sure.

Heidi Ledford

That’s what I thought. So, I was surprised too and I thought well, why is this surprising because I did think it would happen, and I guess I thought we would have another year or two. But the other thing that surprised me was what they did with it. He took, what to me seemed like a very bizarre approach of sort of justifying it medically by saying we’ve engineered these children of an HIV positive father so that they will be less likely to contract HIV, and to me it was just not a medically compelling argument.

David Cyranoski

That’s what actually annoyed scientists, was that it was not a compelling argument to take a risk like this. Some people say they differentiate between genetic enhancement and modification for correction, and they were saying this is not something that was a correction, you’re trying to prevent something that probably will never happen. So, it was taking a huge risk with very, very marginal benefit.

Alison Abbott

And how do we know that this is actually the first time it’s happened because I could imagine the technology is relatively easy to do, this guy chose to make it public, but do we know that there’s not 20 other people out there who’ve not quietly done this on behalf of the parents?

David Cyranoski

No, we really don’t, and that was part of what was surprising too, was that this guy – I thought when it first happened, it would happen like that, like we’d find out a couple of years later that someone was claiming it and then we’d have to verify the claims – but this time this guy was ready to just make this big splash, and he really naively thought that everybody was going to say this is great, he pushed the envelope like the people who did the first IVF babies which is now obviously, an accepted technology. He thought he was in that vein, so he thought everything was going to embrace him and obviously, they didn’t.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, the researcher at the centre of this is He Jiankui, who was initially lauded in China for this work I think, and has since pretty much been stricken from the record and the Chinese government have now introduced some guidelines seemingly as a result of his work.

David Cyranoski

Right, from what I’ve heard, he understood that there were regulations against this going back to 2003 that said you shouldn’t do this, but they didn’t have penalties attached to it – there wasn’t a law that if you do this, you go to jail – so from what I’ve heard, he thought well, then I can do it, maybe they won’t like it but it’s not illegal. And now, China I think is struggling right now to figure out what to do with him because there weren’t laws that said if you do this, you go to jail. So, part of what they’ve done is come up with regulations that say if you do this, that basically you can lose your job, it will affect your career in various ways, you can’t get more grants, your hospital might not be able to do clinical research anymore, and it also said this raft of laws we already have that have criminal penalties attached to them, might apply. So, it gave a kind of clear framework on how someone might be treated in the future if they do the same thing.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, as someone who has been reporting on this from China, how difficult has it been to cover the story if He has been stricken from records and what have you?

David Cyranoski

Well, the striking of him from the record has been one of the stories, so that’s been easy to report on. It’s quite interesting to see how China has done this – I mean, they’ve actually gone to webpages in the past where they used to laud him for other things, for like genomic sequencing technology that he developed, and they went back and they took down all these articles that were on the government websites. So, that was very interesting to see. And then WeChat, which is the main social media application in China with like millions and millions of users, they stopped people talking about this, so that was all very high-level censorship. So, it’s clearly an embarrassment to China, and it’s hard because you can’t call up the Ministry of Science and Technology and say what are you going to do about this – they don’t want to talk about it. Scientists don’t really want to talk about it either because it’s such a sensitive topic, so it has been hard to get people’s opinions but there are plenty of people around the world that are ready to talk about this so you can do a lot of reporting from outside China. From inside China, to get kind of that feel of what’s been going on, it’s been quite difficult.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, speaking of people from around the world then, so the Chinese government is not alone. Separately, an international group of researchers and ethicists have called not for an outright ban but for a moratorium on the clinical use of heritable genome editing, and this amounts essentially to a pause in research to allow for discussions about the technology to take place. Now, this call was made in a comment piece in Nature and it’s something that the US National Institutes of Health have also supported. I mean, opening this out to the panel, why do we need a moratorium in the first instance?

Heidi Ledford

I guess one thing I wonder is would a moratorium have stopped He? I mean would it have gotten through because we already have an international report saying woah, let’s not do this yet, we’re not ready etc. and he did it anyway, and the moratorium, I have the sense, is trying to be a bit more clear and firm about that but I just don’t know if it would have gotten through.

David Cyranoski

No, it wouldn’t. I mean China already had what amounted to a moratorium and already the great and good from the scientific community imposed what amounted to a moratorium in 2015 at a different conference, and since then there’s been several high-level international organisations that have put out what basically is a moratorium – don’t do this yet, we’re not ready for it yet. So, no, I don’t think it would have stopped him to have this moratorium that came out now.

Heidi Ledford

I guess the other thing that I wonder is these other scientists who knew, would it have made them more likely to say something?

David Cyranoski

So, these other scientists that knew, there’s a lot of finger-pointing now at them, and I don’t know that I think it’s quite fair because they didn’t know exactly what he was doing, they knew what he told them he was doing. Part of that was that he had ethical approval to do this, which might not be true, we don’t know but there’s a lot that we don’t know about what they knew. And even if they did know, what are they… go to the Chinese government and call the police? There’s no clear route for how they could have handled this. I don’t quite think it’s fair the way some of them have been accused of covering this up or something like that.

Alison Abbott

I think moratoriums don’t really stop people doing things that they have the technology to be able to do, but I still think they have great value in allowing some sort of structure to societal debate on the thing, and sort of helping authorities to get a toehold onto the subject.

David Cyranoski

Yeah, I think what might be more, you know, a moratorium could convince governments around the world to take this more seriously if they see this, and, for example, there’s going to be a meeting at the WHO to discuss this, and if you have the WHO looking at the call for a moratorium and saying yeah, maybe we should reflect this in recommendations that we give to governments around the world, then it might have some effect going forward.

Heidi Ledford

But I don’t know that that would do anything to stop rogue actors.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, I think that’s right, and that’s something that you’ve reported on before, David, as well, is that the ‘maverick’ or the outsider, you might say hey everyone, please let’s not do this, that’s not necessarily going to stop them, right?

David Cyranoski

Yeah, I’ve reported on a lot of rogue actors and I think they always find a way to rationalise or justify what they’re doing, often with knowledge of what the rules are, so they’ll find them way around them. In fact, He Jiankui, I think to some extent thought that he did this, thought well, I’m supposed to be public and transparent and he did go around to researchers around the world and say hey, this is what I’m doing, and he apparently counted this as some kind of transparency. So, some of the things that we’re now saying in the future we have to do more of this, I wonder how much he’d be like yeah, that’s what I did.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

But maybe having a distinct set of rules, not just what he thinks but what is written down, would offer some value to researchers and also to people who want to blow the whistle, give them a path to do things as well.

David Cyranoski

Yeah, I think so. Having a clear line of reporting for something like this would definitely be good for anybody that knew about it.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, thinking about a different sort of reporting, maybe what we do here as well, I mean, what role do we have when covering things like this, I mean the phrase ‘oxygen of publicity’ is maybe one that is important here. If we keep covering the nuances and saying this has been done, this person did this thing, does that maybe exacerbate the problem with rogue actors later on?

Alison Abbott

I think it helps the problem enormously because I know I’ve done rogue actors too, particularly a few rogues in Italy that I can think of where the rogues themselves have managed to get government support, and having this exposed in an international journal, the government of Italy can ignore Nature and they do, they ignore Nature, but it gives a weapon in the hands of the protagonists operating in Italy trying to control these people and this is very effective, I’ve found.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, what about journals themselves? I mean we think of controversial things that can be published – virus genomes or what have you – what role does the sort of the publishing world have for this as well do we think?

David Cyranoski

In general, I think there’s a lot of people who say you shouldn’t publish this and after He made his announcement and there were a lot of people saying hey, you have to publish this, this is part of the scientific endeavour, before you do something like this or when you do it, you’ve got to publish it and let us know, and then there’s a lot of people saying no one should allow him to publish that anywhere, he’s basically broken the law, he’s broken all kinds of ethical rules, he shouldn’t get any benefit by publication out of this, so there’s not a clear line forward on that.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And David, this whole story centres around these two girls – do we know what’s going to happen to them as they grow older? Is there any special medical care in place?

David Cyranoski

Yeah, there definitely should be special medical care in place, but I don’t think we’re going to find out about it because one of the things that everybody has emphasised on all sides is that the girls should have anonymity. They don’t want to have these girls growing up with everybody knowing that they have been the first gene-edited babies in the world. Basically, I think they’re going to be protected and that everything is going to be confidential. So, I don’t think there’s going to be any big announcements. I trust that the Chinese government is going to consult with all the people it needs to, do the tests that should be done in such a case. Ideally, they would come out later and say we’re not going to tell you who these girls are but this is what we did to make sure that they got all the treatment that they needed and that might be a positive outcome out of this.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, moving on to our second topic for this edition of Backchat, Alison here, after a remarkable 27 years working as a staff reporter, is moving on to work as a freelancer. Alison, in your 27 years you must have seen it all.

Alison Abbott

I guess I have seen it all. I’ve got a lot of tales to tell.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Right, well let’s maybe talk about some of those tales. Maybe let’s start here – what are you most proud of in your 27 years reporting for Nature?

Alison Abbott

Well, there’s a bit of a list, but just to put it in context, when we report for Nature, we have to do stories about the politics of science, the process of science and the science itself, so I can give a nice example of the process of science which was very exciting for me. I went to Kyrgyzstan with a group of geneticists who were going along the Silk Road, starting in Venice and finishing in China, collecting biological samples from different tribes and communities and populations, and this was one of the biggest adventures I’ve ever had. It’s somewhere extremely foreign for me, very, very exotic, and when I arrived there after a long, long journey at 3 o’clock in the morning, I got a call on my cell phone from somebody in Romania breaking another news story that became quite a big thing for us because it was the very beginning of the high-level plagiarism scandal of Romania. And there I was in Tashkent, burning to do this story but then burning to go out on the road with the crew. We sorted it out – we always sort it out. So, I was very proud of that.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

I mean everyone says you make your own luck, Alison, I think, and just being in the right place at the right time, and knowing these people and having these stories is a fine example of that.

Alison Abbott

Yes, you’re absolutely right – you have to be in the right place at the right time, and chance favours the prepared mind, to quote Louis Pasteur. And I think basically when you’re a journalist, you’re not as good as the beginning as you are at the end because you accumulate this experience, you accumulate contacts that trust you. For example, a guy from Romania calling me spontaneously about this thing – that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been trudging round speaking to people for so many years.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

I mean I’ve looked up what your first article for Nature was and it’s dated 26th March 1992, and it was entitled: ‘Better luck second time?’

Alison Abbott

Really?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, what do you remember about that – I’m guessing not very much?

Alison Abbott

Nothing! What I learnt from what you say now is that we weren’t very good at headlines then because this gives me no clue as to what it was about.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, on that then and in the last sort of 27 years or so, let’s maybe throw this out to the rest of you as well, what has changed in the way that science has been reported or the way that you have reported it?

Alison Abbott

It’s changed beyond description. In the first years that I worked, the telephone was the key operator, and telephones with leads that you sat at your desk and you had one on your right hand and one on your left hand, and the key thing was to get to somebody. So, you couldn’t just send them an email and they wouldn’t necessarily be in their office – they might be in their lab, they might be at a meeting – so you used to develop these techniques of finding out who was in the next office to them. So, you would collect a yearbook from institutes, pull it off the shelf, look through the names and call somebody else in that institute and say hey, Dr. So-and-So, is he in today, can you pop down the corridor and find him? This changed of course with the internet, and now I don’t have two telephones, I have my cell phone, but basically if you want to call somebody I sort of feel obliged to first of all write them an email to say I’m going to call you in a few minutes, is this okay?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

This has presumably just contracted the time it takes to do things as well. If you’re waiting for someone to return your call that might be a few hours or whatever, whereas an email is straight away. I mean that has inherently sped up the process of reporting science, surely?

Alison Abbott

Yeah, dramatically and so the expectations and the bar have also risen.

David Cyranoski

Right, as my brother has said, if he were the only one that had this technology it would be great because he would be faster than everybody else. But as the technology just gets faster and faster, you’re just like running faster and faster to keep up with everyone else who has the same technology.

Heidi Ledford

Yeah, that’s been the case even in the past 12 years I guess that I’ve been at Nature. I can remember when I first came and we were very print magazine driven and something would happen this week and we’d say alright, we’re going to write a story about it and it will show up next week and that will be fine, and now you really have to kind of anticipate ahead of time so that you can write most of the story ahead of time and tweak it as needed and run it immediately online. It’s quite different.

David Cyranoski

Yeah, for me, the constant input of Twitter and others, you just get a barrage of this stuff all of the time, and so where it used to be that you could get a story and know that you had a week to write it, now it’s just like the story is constantly changing because there’s always someone adding some little element to it as you go along, so you’re thinking is this still a news story for me because there’s so much out there and what can I add that’s different? It’s a constant redirecting of the course you’re on a story.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

I mean as technology and the world has changed so much, maybe your role has changed from telling people what’s going on to maybe curating all the kind of chatter that’s going on around the world – do you think that’s true maybe?

Alison Abbott

I think that is true to a very, very large extent. We interpret the news as a sort of raison d’être in many ways.

David Cyranoski

A lot of the information that you are talking about is completely wrong and misleading, misguided, deceitful, so I think we have maybe a more important role in trying to differentiate the good and the bad and the scientifically validated and justified and that’s what is often just used to manipulate people, especially in biomedical fields. Writing about stuff that I would say more than half of the stuff you see out there on the internet is probably wrong, and often therefore purposed to try to make money off people.

Alison Abbott

But we still break news stories and for a journalist, there’s nothing finer than breaking a story.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

What’s the favourite story you’ve ever broken then Alison?

Alison Abbott

I guess one of my favourites is breaking open the story of a maverick stem-cell researcher in Italy, simply because he was able to operate behind the scenes and had managed to inveigle himself to government sources and had government support. Being able to break that story was very profound. A nice little story that I broke quite recently was the discovery of an original letter of Galileo that had been completely unknown.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

As I recall, that’s just because it had been dated wrong and put in the wrong drawer, right?

Alison Abbott

More or less, and also because people were looking where the light was instead of looking systematically or keeping their mind open to where Galileo’s documents might be – most of them are held elsewhere.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I also know that this one got worldwide coverage as a result of your finding. I mean that must have made you feel pretty awesome.

Alison Abbott

It was terrific. It was also a terrific story because it was a happy story and most of our stories that we do are sort of quite miserable. They’re sort of fraud, unhappiness, people behaving badly, but this one was pure joy.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

What about you David?

David Cyranoski

For me, well, I’ll mention this because it’s connected to what we were talking about earlier, but in 2015 we wrote the first story about the gene-edited human embryo which kind of kicked off all the debate that culminated with the He Jiankui announcement that he’d done it in babies. We all knew that there was likely people doing this and we’re trying to find who was going to be the first one to do it and I was driving around with a guy in China who was researching something else and I just started talking about this and I wonder when this is going to happen and he said oh, it’s already happened. I said, it has? And he said yeah, and he got on his mobile phone and called the guy who did it and set up an interview for me with him. Then the next day I interviewed him and we went to press and had the story and then it kind of started this whole debate about the ethics of gene editing and when’s the first baby going to be born and things like that.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And Heidi, what’s the favourite story that you’ve broken?

Heidi Ledford

It’s like trying to pick your favourite child.

David Cyranoski

That’s easy.

Heidi Ledford

Ouch! I love all of mine just the same. The one that comes to mind was not like huge splashy news or anything but it was one fairly soon after I first started and it was about some researchers at a federal hospital in the United States and there was some internal politics going on. I think for whatever reason this sort of priceless, valuable collection of various bacterial pathogens was destroyed in the process and there was a small outcry from the community and I think I did a story about that, and then a couple of years later there was a congressional hearing about it so I did the follow up story about the congressional hearing and I remember my editor said well, did they have this hearing because of your story and I was like I don’t know, I’m not going to ask, that’s just a tacky question and I don’t want to put that in the article and he said no, no you need to ask, and so I asked, and it turned out that it was because of our story, and I thought well, that’s neat I guess. I think at the time I didn’t realise necessarily that staffers in congress were reading Nature and that our stories had that kind of reach.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, there we have it. Many thanks to my guests David Cyranoski, Heidi Ledford and Alison Abbott for joining me today. You can read their work and more stories from the world of science over at nature.com/news. If you’d like to get in contact with us here at the Nature Podcast, you can reach out on Twitter – we’re @NaturePodcast. This has been BackChat, I’ve been Benjamin Thompson, thanks for listening.