Research on a genetic engineering technique that allows scientists to quickly modify entire populations of organisms should continue in the laboratory — and potentially in the field, an expert panel said Wednesday.
This “gene drive” technology, in its current form, is only two years old, but some are already calling for its use against the Zika virus. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Panel reins in this enthusiasm.
“There is insufficient evidence available at this time to support the release of gene-drive modified organisms into the environment,” it writes. However, “highly-controlled field trials” should proceed.
Gene drives enable genetic modifications to a single organism to spread rapidly through the entire population by ensuring that targeted genes are passed on to nearly all offspring.
Some scientists urge caution.
“There is a nontrivial chance that they will spread from a single organism released into a wild population into most or all members of the local population — and very possibly into every population of the target species around the globe,” said Kevin Esvelt, an MIT Media Lab professor who has studied gene drives in yeast. “This makes field trials of [current gene] drives unwise.”
And the technology itself is spreading so quickly through the scientific community that the government is struggling to catch up — it’s unclear who, if anyone, would have the authority to regulate this technology or prevent scientists from releasing modified organisms.
Gene drives have the potential to change the genetic makeup of entire populations, like mosquitos that carry malaria. Video by Hyacinth Empinado/STAT
“There is nothing in our regulatory system that could possibly take on this challenge given the glacial pace of regulating chemicals and of the voluntary regulations in certain areas of food biotechnology,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts professor of urban and environmental policy and planning.
The report addresses some concerns that may be raised by gene drives, calling for intense consideration of environmental, social, and economic issues. It recommends “phased testing” — starting in a lab, moving up to field-based research, and eventually releasing organisms into the wild.
Researchers lauded the report as a good start to the conversation about a territory lacking clear regulation, but some say that the panel should have explicitly instructed researchers to engage members of the public before doing their research.
This is critical because gene drives, in their current form, are all about unilaterally and rapidly changing environments shared by many people, Esvelt said.
“We should at the very least have the courtesy to inform people what is being planned — and let them voice their opinions — before we begin,” he said.
The question of where eventual field research might occur also comes up in the report. The authors note that such research “is most likely to occur” in “low- and middle-income countries,” and thus it is especially important to build long-term relationships with scientists in those countries.
“Starting the work in low-income countries is especially problematic,” said Jaydee Hanson, a policy director at the International Center for Technology Assessment. He pointed out that the United States did not ratify international environmental treaties, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and other countries may be skeptical of US researchers conducting field trials in their backyards.