The National Committee of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has recently presented a report summarizing the legal, ethical and social implications that are required to be considered while making use of gene drive technique. The report recommended caution while making use of gene editing as its foundation.

With a fast paced development in the field of gene editing, it’s use has been on the rise for the last few years. With the advent of gene editing tool, CRISPR Cas9, the possibilities to change the genomic sequence of any specie have been further magnified.

The report said that more research in the laboratories and highly controlled trials are warranted before gene drive-modified organisms are introduced in the environment. Upon discovering the rising trend in the use of the technology, the National Institute of Health and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health asked the Academies to convene a committee to look into the regulatory mechanism of the gene drive.

What Is Gene Drive?

Gene drive is a naturally occurring phenomenon when the parents pass their genetic traits to the offspring. But, when this phenomenon is controlled and manipulated in a laboratory to interfere with the gene sequence of an organism, it results in a gene drive-modified organism. These gene drives work as systems of biased inheritance to select favorable genes which can express themselves in the organism. On the other hand, the gene drives can also eliminate some gene sequences to get rid of unfavorable traits in certain species.

How Gene Editing Has Helped Us In The Past?

The culprit behind dengue fever and Zika virus, Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes have previously been genetically modified to limit the age of the mosquitoes. The gene was inserted in the mosquitoes that were passed on to the offspring which would die before reaching maturation. This, in turn, helped reduce the spread of disease by eliminating the mosquito population before they could lay eggs. Restricting their reproduction had the potential to help the spread of diseases at a global level which often turn deadly in low income countries. However, these mosquitoes did not possess a gene drive which was automatically transferred to the progeny generation. The natural selection of the mosquito genome did not let the alterations to be transferred to the progeny; therefore, the gene had to be reintroduced in the mosquito after periodic intervals. On the contrary, engineered mosquito with a single modified gene drive has a potential to show persistent results to resisting a pathogen. The process is less time consuming and is seen to pass on to generations.

These evident features of the technique are reasons enough for the increased popularity of gene drive modifications. Committee chair, Elizabeth Heitman, PhD, Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, identified this and went on to say, “Dengue, Zika, and malaria—the mosquito-borne infectious diseases that are really horrific in their impact on human health—are push[ing] a lot of people to want to do things quickly [with gene drives]”.

The use of gene modification can potentially help us in many ways. It has the ability to reduce a population or change its phenotype according to need of the hour. For instance, it can help alter genes in disease carrying vectors like dengue, malaria to eradicate deadly diseases. It can help alter human genome sequence to reduce disease susceptibility. In addition to this, using the technique can increase meat and milk yield in daily animals and increase the crop yield while reducing the risk of plant diseases.

Why Regulating This Technique Is Important?

Despite, the potential advantages of gene editing, unregulated use of the procedure is discouraged by the report. The researchers are concerned about the possible backlash from the excessive use of technology.

The committee examined the potential risks of unregulated use of gene drive. The committee has urged the genetic engineering experts to use technological advancements with responsibility. The members emphasized on the possibility of unintended consequences of this gene modifying technique. Amongst these scenarios, few were highlighted. For instance, the elimination of a specie from the environment may have detrimental effects on the balance of ecosystem. In other situation, the gene can be horizontally transferred to a non-targeted specie leading to undesired consequences.

To help confine the possibilities of adverse effects of this specific advancement, the committee recommended step-by-step approach to research on gene drive followed by highly controlled trials. Furthermore, ecological risk assessment and global impact of the research are also warranted to minimize the adverse effect of the technology. Once, the possible negative effects are controlled, only then the advantages of this technology can help masses across the world.