Preventing the transmission of inherited genetic diseases, and increasing food production rates in farmed animals are two potential applications of genome editing technologies that require urgent ethical scrutiny, according to the independent Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
The Council has today published the first findings of its programme of work looking at the recent and potential impact of recent advances in genome editing such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system across many areas of biological research. The Council found evidence that, given its technical advantages and rates of uptake, genome editing is already having an almost unprecedented impact in research. The Council considered factors such as the extent to which the ethical questions raised by applications of the technology are novel, the likelihood of imminent advances in these areas and the possible effects of these advances in fields such as health care, food production, industry and public health.
“Genome editing is already showing a potential to transform not only how biological research is carried out, but more importantly our expectations and ambitions for addressing challenges such as disease prevention and food security. Although most uses so far have been in research, the potential applications seem to be almost unlimited, given that the techniques are applicable to all organisms, from bacteria to plants, animals, and human beings” said Dr Andy Greenfield, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Group who conducted the review.
The Council will now begin work on two further inquiries addressing the ethical and practical questions raised by possible uses of genome editing in different fields. The first of these will focus on the potential use of genome editing in human reproduction to avoid the transmission of heritable genetic conditions, and the second on livestock to improve systems of animal husbandry and food production. The Council will be seeking a wide range of input to support these further inquiries.
Avoiding genetic disease
Human reproductive applications are probably the most talked about potential application of genome editing technologies and raise some of the most complex ethical concerns. Concerns have been stirred by reports of research in China to correct disease-causing genetic mutations in non-viable embryos in 2015 and the granting, by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), of a licence to allow genome editing of embryos in the UK February 2016.
There are more than 4,000 known, inherited, single gene conditions, which collectively are thought to affect approximately 1% of births worldwide. Genome editing could one day offer an alternative approach to preventing the inheritance of diseases such as cystic fibrosis. It might be an option where established methods such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which involves screening the DNA of embryos created through IVF, would not be effective at preventing transmission.
Many people have concerns about the possible use of genome editing in humans, for example, about the risks of unintended effects due to off target DNA alterations, and the implications of making irreversible changes that will be passed on to future generations. Another key concern is the possible orientation of research towards human enhancement, going beyond disease prevention into the engineering of ‘desirable’ genetic characteristics. As with other technologies and innovations, the potential benefits and harms of genome editing might not be distributed equitably, and some people are worried that negative effects could cause discrimination, injustice or disadvantage to certain individuals or groups.
Professor Karen Yeung, Chair of the newly established Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party on human reproductive applications said: “Genome editing is a potentially powerful set of techniques that holds many future possibilities, including that of altering certain genetic features at the embryonic stage that are known to lead to serious and life-limiting disease. In the UK and in many other countries, a long path to legislative change would have to be followed before this could become a treatment option. But it is only right that we acknowledge where this new science may lead and explore the possible paths ahead to ensure the one on which we set out today is the right one. We will be very interested to hear people’s views on this aspect of genome editing technologies in our new inquiry”.
Increasing food production
Genome editing in animals such as pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens is an area where genome editing techniques have not just accelerated research but have opened up completely new areas of research that could have significant societal, economic and political implications.
Research is being carried out to find new ways to intensify food production sustainably in order to feed a growing world population, for example, by increasing animal meat yield or reproductive capacity, or improving disease resistance and welfare in intensively reared animals.
Genome editing in animals gives a fresh impetus for considering questions raised by previous technologies for modifying foods. Food safety is a primary concern, and there are additional concerns about animal welfare and, these feed in to arguments about the appropriate ways to meet challenges of food security.
Professor John Dupre, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party on genome editing in livestock, which will start work in 2017, said: “Genome editing calls into question the distinction between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and non-GMO foods, which are regulated quite differently at present. In our inquiry on livestock we want to look at the issues from the starting point of the societal challenge that we face in feeding a growing world population and ask whether and how new genome technologies should contribute to meeting that challenge. We will be seeking views from a wide range of people to inform our deliberations and recommendations”.
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