When Gene Editing is Okay
A few days ago, I read an article that stated that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) categorically said that it does not intend to regulate gene-edited plants.
Genome editing (also called as gene editing) is gaining enormous popularity and application the world over. The technology allows scientists to add, delete, alter and remove genetic material at particular locations. The most popular among the approaches is termed Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR). Scientists feel that this is a faster, cheaper, more accurate and efficient technique to produce new genetic material.
Former NASA biochemist Josiah Zayner became the first human to use CRIPSR on himself when he did a do-it-yourself gene therapy. Currently, thousands of gene edited products are being developed and used in medicine, plants, animals and microbes. On 10th April 2018 Bill Gates wrote about the benefits of using CRISPR technology to global development.
While my intention is not to discuss the technology or its application, I feel there is a need for both scientists and policy makers to clarify the limits of using this technology.
When I organized a series of expert discussion seminars on synthetic biology in 2017 with an aim to apprise the Convention on Biological Diversity and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, where discussions are ongoing, to develop a new global policy framework to deal with synthetic biology, one key message that emerged was that for many scientists and government agencies, CRISPR is linked with advances in synthetic biology.
If this is considered a valid argument, then all of the countries that are Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety have some issues.
First, if the Protocol considers synthetic biology organisms as equivalent to genetically modified organisms, then the biosafety principles need to apply to those organisms that are developed using synthetic biology. And, if CRISPR is a key component of developing synthetic biology products (intentionally I have used the terms ‘organisms’ and ‘products’ inter-changeably here), then CRIPSR need to be considered as a technique that needs some regulatory oversight.
Second, if countries prefer not to have any regulatory oversight over CRIPSP based organisms, then the global negotiations under the Protocol need to be re-directed.
The gene editing technology and debates over the regulatory issues related to the technology is a perfect text book case for those working on science-policy interface. While the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is discussing a regular agenda such as the role of traditional knowledge, conservation of pollinators and others, it will miss some of the emerging discussions on issues such as gene editing technology. An IPBES kind of platform, established to promote the science-policy interface should begin a forward looking agenda for discussions.
In my view, the following issues need urgent attention from Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
First, ensure the discussions and decisions related to synthetic biology do consider elements related to emerging technologies such as gene editing and debate issues related to de-regulating gene edited organisms/products more thoroughly.
Second, scientist’s opinions on the safety of gene edited products need to be considered but valued in the context of a national policy setting on issues such as biosafety.
Third, there should be enough discussion on the environmental safety of gene edited products/organisms so that one understands the basic fact that no ‘new’ gene insert is made into an organism but only the existing genes are edited.
Last, countries need to develop a foresight analysis on issues such as gene editing and synthetic biology to assure the scientists of their working spaces and the public of their safety nets.