Geneticist shares negative results on ResearchGate and confirms: promising gene editing technology doesn’t work

A ResearchGate project update warned other scientists about the faulty method nearly a year before the paper that originally reported it was retracted.

When the gene-editing technique NgAgo was introduced as an alternative to the popular CRISPR-Cas9 system, it seemed likely expand the boundaries of genetics yet again. However, when medical researcher Joseph Miano tried it, it didn’t work. Using ResearchGate to share his results in real time, Miano alerted his peers that NgAgo was seriously flawed. This update came nearly a year before an official retraction was issued, saving other labs the time and resources they might have invested in the technology.

CRISPR-Cas9 has transformed biology research by enabling scientists to modify the genetic information of any organism – including human cells – with unprecedented ease. It quickly rose to the forefront of the fight against cancer, blood disorders, and other genetic diseases. But CRISPR-Cas9 isn’t perfect: it can sometimes edit the wrong genes. The new NgAgo system promised greater precision and more potential applications. Miano wasn’t the only one excited about it. The paper introducing the technology had been published in a prestigious journal, bolstering its credibility. Even renowned Harvard geneticist George Church had expressed optimism about the technique. For Han Chunyu, the reclusive biologist behind NgAgo, this enthusiasm from the scientific community meant instant stardom in China.

So Miano, who creates mouse models of human diseases for medical research, was eager to try NgAgo in his own work. His lab conducted three experiments. None of them worked. He even contacted the corresponding author of the NgAgo paper to be sure he was doing everything correctly. But in the end the new technique, touted initially to supplant CRISPR, simply did not work as advertised. “NgAgo is a bust,” Miano posted to his ResearchGate project, a feature scientists use to share and follow ongoing research. “CRISPR remains the choice methodology for genome editing,” he added in a subsequent update in which he detailed the unsuccessful experiments and warned other labs not to use the new method.

Despite the warnings of Miano and others, it wasn’t until almost a year later that Han’s team posted a statement in the journal that had published the NgAgo paper: “We are retracting our study because of the continued inability of the research community to replicate the key results.” In all the time that passed from publication to retraction, scientists around the world were in danger of wasting their time – not to mention tens of thousands of dollars in staff time and equipment – trying to replicate this technique.

That’s why real-time sharing like Miano’s is so crucial for speeding up scientific progress. When researchers share and follow science as it happens on ResearchGate, they can prevent costly investments in methods that don’t work. It can take months, or even years, to publish research results in a journal. On ResearchGate, scientists can share and discuss their results right away.

Miano is still doing just that as he continues his work with CRISPR, keeping his peers informed of successes and failures alike. “It's important to report errors as well,” he says of a recent update in which he outlines lessons learned from a failed experiment. Now others can benefit from the three months of work Miano estimates his lab invested in the endeavor. “I am coming to you to get my CRISPR done right,” wrote one medical researcher in response to Miano’s latest update. Clearly his efforts are not going unappreciated.

For more information and updates, visit Miano’s project on ResearchGate. 

Featured image courtesy of Mehmet Pinarci.