My recent Times column on gene editing:
Britain has an opportunity to seize on the latest breakthroughs in gene editing and pioneer new approaches in agriculture, research and medicine. We are well placed to be bold but responsible gene editors. Bolder than continental countries, looking over their shoulder to the disapproving Roman Catholic church; more responsible than China, where decisions on such matters are taken by officials with little consultation with the public; and without the divisive culture battles over moral and legal issues that so often divide the United States on matters of biology.
This is partly a matter of good regulation. Britain’s pioneering debate in the 1980s on how to regulate embryo research, allowing such work up to 14 days, drew the sting from subsequent arguments over cloning, stem cells and mitochondrial transplants. It is a compromise that has held and shown that the slope to “designer babies” is not slippery. The public is reassured. There have been no major scandals or disasters in genetic research here.
Moreover, on the medical side unlike agriculture, the European Commission has kept out of this area. Somehow, it has never managed to impose its precautionary obsession on biomedical research as it has on other areas of science. So it really is up to the British government how much it encourages or hampers genetic experiments and treatments. Britain’s decision last year to allow gene editing in human embryos, but only for research, not for germline breeding, was a world first, and went through without much public fuss.
In agriculture, the story of transgenic genetic modification of plants – the “older” technology now being partly replaced by gene editing – is also encouraging. Twenty years ago, America was relaxed about genetic modification, whereas Britain was easily panicked by the green movement into nonsensical fears of “Frankenstein foods”. Today, it is the other way around. Hotted up by green campaigners who are aware of “climate fatigue” among their donors, Americans are increasingly torn over GMOs, despite decades of safe and environmentally beneficial experience of growing of them.
Genetically modified farm animals are especially problematic, stuck in what one researcher calls “regulatory purgatory” for 20 years, and one of the last acts of the Obama administration was to toughen the regulation of gene editing in animals as well. In effect, the government funds genetic modification and gene editing of animals and then does not allow them to be used.
In this country, by contrast, absence has made the heart grow fonder. In 2012 when Rothamsted Research grew GM crops experimentally, it explained the reasons carefully and cogently to the public in a series of videos, ably assisted by the ex-protester Mark Lynas among others, and the result was a small group of protesters, some of whom were French. This year, when GM wheat was planted there, no protesters turned up at all.
Gene editing means making small changes to sequences of DNA letters so as to remove or alter the expression of genes that allow infections or code for undesirable traits. It answers many of the objections of that earlier generation of protesters. There is no introduction of foreign DNA, no “crossing the species barrier” which opponents managed to make sound so unnatural. Also, lighter regulation would prevent the technology being confined to large corporations that could cope with the regulatory burden, which protesters found objectionable.
So perhaps we have an opportunity now to do what we did with embryonic stem cells – provide a more permissive but still strict regulatory environment in agriculture than America, but still with popular support. In a Yougov poll last week, just 7% of people said they opposed gene editing altogether. As an America-based law professor tells me, “public views are evolving fairly quickly towards usage and away from restrictions”.
Suppose Britain did decide that it wanted to encourage as much as possible of this research and application, carefully regulated according to the trait in question, rather than the method of producing it, what should it do? First, paradoxically, it should impose a strict moratorium on germ-line gene editing in people. Despite growing evidence that nobody really wants to use these technologies for “designer baby” enhancement, enough concern remains that we should draw the line for the foreseeable future here. As Lord Winston pointed out in a letter to the Times last week, there are other ways to ensure that people carrying brutal mutations can escape passing them on to their children, chiefly through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
The main medical benefits of gene editing lie elsewhere. By combining gene editing and induced pluripotent stem cells, researchers are beginning to envisage cures for a wide variety of diseases. The most promising results are with the treatment of leukaemia by harnessing the body’s own immune system to attack the cancer. As reported earlier this year, in mice with leukaemia, “edited cells vastly outperforming conventionally generated”cells.This is a really exciting breakthrough and is the greatest prize that the new technology offers. A moratorium on germline gene editing would help maintain public support such somatic gene editing.
Second, we should give a cautious green light to some germ-line gene editing in animals. The Roslin institute’s work on making pigs resistant to disease by editing one gene is a good example of the exciting possibilities here, and gene editing may well prove to be a vital weapon in the conservation armory: engineering red squirrels to resist the parapox virus spread by greys, for example, or engineering invasive insect pests so as to suppress their populations – both easily within our grasp in the near future.
Third, in the case of plants, we should go all out for gene editing as a replacement not only for genetic modification, but for pesticides too. Gene editing so that crops are insect-resistant, and thus need no sprays, or capable of fixing their own nitrogen from the air, and thus need no fertiliser, or for enhanced nutrition (more omega-3 fatty acids, say), are all possibilities. The European Union is deliberately trying to delay deciding how to regulate this technology. The Americans, despite permitting two traits already, are now starting to promulgate stricter rules through the Food and Drug Administration. The Chinese are gung-ho but lack the depth of scientific expertise we have here. We could be the world leader in plant gene editing. Scientifically, legally, reputationally and pragmatically, we are in a great position.