Researchers received an early Christmas present this December when the UN Biodiversity Convention rejected calls for an international moratorium on gene drives.
Gene drives promote certain hereditary traits in a population and have numerous healthcare applications. Until recently, they were theoretical—but the arrival of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing has changed that.
Researchers at the Imperial College London, for example, engineered a line of Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes that pass on an infertility gene. The intention is to reduce the spread of malaria.
Dr. Andrea Crisanti, who leads that team, expressed relief at the UN’s decision. “It would have been a disaster for developing the technology,” he said of the proposed moratorium, telling Nature that it would have made funding scarce and restricted field tests.
Not to mention the consequences for human health. In an open letter to the UN Biodiversity Convention, Crisanti’s team urged decision-makers to consider how gene drives might help fight disease:
“One potential application of gene drive is to reduce the burden of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and the Zika virus, which account for more than 17 percent of all infectious diseases, and cause more than one million deaths annually.”
Still, don’t expect the objections to go away following the UN’s decision. Opponents worry about the ecological and environmental impact of gene drives. They warn about the ramifications of an accidental release and say this work needs to be halted, at least until an international regulatory framework is implemented.
“We need to pause in order to thoroughly and thoughtfully figure out what we need to have in place for the responsible use of this technology,” Dana Perls, an activist with Friends of the Earth, told Nature.
The controversy highlights an issue long associated with genetics investing—and that’s the fact that so many regulatory and ethical questions remain up in the air. “With gene-editing, you’re talking about a change that will potentially be with you forever,” explained private biotech investor Brad Loncar. “That can be a powerful thing if something goes wrong.”
Add in the fact that such changes will be inherited by future generations, and the controversy increases.
CRISPR-Cas9, as a relatively new technology, still has much to prove—like how specific its alterations can be. There are additional questions about who actually owns the patent. But in the midst of these buzzworthy headlines, we can’t forget that CRISPR-Cas9 also has to contend with a more basic question—the same one that arises every time we discuss gene-editing. Are humans ready for this technology … and how can we ensure its ethical use?
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Securities Disclosure: I, Chelsea Pratt, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.