Gene Editing Is Popular, But Controversial, Research Area
Gene drive research carries great potential for controlling insect vectors of devastating diseases, but there are multiple unresolved ethical concerns. Unanticipated “downstream” effects on ecosystems, or in organisms that carry the gene drive machinery, are possible. To help researchers balance risks and benefits for society and humanity, scientists involved in the Controlling and Countering Gene Editing in Mosquitoes research project developed a code of ethics for gene drive research.1
Today, gene drive researchers are focused on diseases that mosquitoes carry. The goal is to make a mosquito that cannot infect a person with malaria. “All of a sudden, it’s become a very hot research area. With the discovery of CRISPR, everybody wants to apply CRISPR to everything. But here is an area where it actually makes sense,” says lead author George J. Annas, JD, MPH, director of the Center for Health Law, Ethics, and Human Rights at Boston University.
Sexual reproduction is the alternative to gene editing. “It is very inefficient if you are trying to replace or eliminate an existing gene,” Annas says.
In contrast, with gene drive technology, changing the genetic makeup of mosquitoes can happen in a matter of weeks.
“It’s extremely efficient. The question is whether it will work — and if it doesn’t have unintended consequences, and if you don’t hit targets you are not trying to hit,” Annas says. “There is work to be done before this is actually tried out in the wild.”
The public’s perception of gene drive research is a central concern for scientists, who see a possible parallel with the two decades-long, continuing controversy over genetically modified food.2,3
“The last thing you’d want to do is repeat that with genetically modified insects,” Annas says. “It’s critical ... the public is involved in decision-making from the beginning. Nothing should be secret; everything should be in the open.”
Unlike clinical research, no one individual can consent for the release of gene drive-modified organisms. This requires consultation with the community. “The general public has not really been focused on this research yet,” Annas notes.
Scientists must engage the public on decisions as to if, when, and where the genetically modified mosquitoes should be released, how it will be monitored, and whether a mechanism is needed to reverse the experiment in case something unanticipated happens. “Those are all things that do have to be resolved, or the public won’t react better than it did to genetically modified food,” Annas cautions.
There are some important differences between genetically modified food and genetically modified mosquitoes. “This could prevent a serious lethal disease, so the public could give this more credence and support,” Annas says.
As for who will be involved in decision-making, there is a need to involve local people where the mosquitoes are going to be released. “But some people have argued that these are really global experiments. You are releasing a life form into the ecology, and you cannot keep it in one specific place,” Annas says. “In some sense, there need to be people classified as ‘global citizens’ to be involved in this review process.”
Overall, gene drive researchers aim to broadcast a consistent message, tell the truth from the beginning, and be transparent. Regardless, due to the nature of the research, wild rumors and even conspiracy theories are bound to erupt.
“This one has its own movie behind it — 'Jurassic Park' — and everyone can imagine it going wrong,” Annas says.
To counter that narrative, Annas says scientists involved in this project and other malaria research need to state their purpose clearly, “that the research is not a bioweapon, that the research is being done purely for peaceful purposes, and that there will be smart people trying to mitigate the problems right from the very beginning.”
Scientists envision an international project with other countries involved, all on board with a fully transparent approach. “As we saw with the pandemic, it’s hard to get the world to work together,” Annas says. “But I think this is another opportunity.”
- Annas GJ, Beisel CL, Clement K, et al. A code of ethics for gene drive research. CRISPR J 2021;4:19-24.
- Keatley KL. Controversy over genetically modified organisms: The governing laws and regulations. Qual Assur 2000;8:33-36.
- Teferra TF. Should we still worry about the safety of GMO foods? Why and why not? A review. Food Sci Nutr 2021;9:5324-5331.
Gene drive researchers aim to broadcast a consistent message, tell the truth from the beginning, and be transparent.
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