Gene-editing research at the University of Minnesota in recent years has come under fire for lacking proper oversight, leading to a review and some changes.
The research was conducted between October 2017 and December 2019 by Dan Voytas, the founder and chief science officer of Calyxt Inc., a Minneapolis agriculture-technology firm that is publicly traded.
Voytas and several other researchers failed to seek approval from the university's Institutional Biosafety Committee, which must green-light any research that involves biological agents as defined by the National Institutes of Health.
The university reported the lack of committee approval to the NIH in January and said then that all safety guidelines were followed.
"It was something that our own university staff caught, and the scientists in the lab were happy to rectify it," said Dan Gilchrist, a spokesman for the university.
The NIH responded to the university's report saying the "actions taken in response to this incident appear appropriate" and "no further information about this incident is required at this time." The agency suggested that researchers receive "refresher training" on IBC review and approval.
The incident was first reported by Independent Science News, which concluded that the oversight was a "research train wreck," and a "concrete demonstration of the weakness of genetic engineering oversight in the United States."
Voytas, a professor at the U, pioneered a gene-editing technology known as TALEN that uses "molecular scissors" to remove undesirable traits in plants. The process is not considered genetic modification since it only removes traits from organisms rather than introducing them.
Calyxt has produced and sold oil from its high-oleic soybeans and is now working to license its technology to companies.
The research that lacked required oversight by an Institutional Biosafety Committee was genetic manipulation of a close cousin of tobacco, types of petunia and rosebush, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes and other plants.
Gilchrist, the U spokesman, said the failure to seek approval for the research was an honest oversight and stressed that NIH guidelines were used in the laboratory and that the university takes such matters seriously.
Jim Blome, the CEO of Calyxt, was unavailable for an interview Wednesday. In a statement, he said it was a "minor oversight in protocol" that was self-reported by the university.
"The National Institutes of Health was satisfied with the University of Minnesota's report and closed the case with no action and there has been no adverse impact to any facet of the work," he said.