Unless you have been actively avoiding the news, you have probably heard of CRISPR/Cas9, and how it could be a revolutionary technology. Discussion of CRISPR/Cas9 and similar new genetic manipulation tools are certainly creating a stir in the world of biology as they allow scientists to ask new questions and figure out what is going on using tools that are easier to use, cheaper and faster than before.

These tools have been described as gene editing or genome editing tools and could lead to a range of applications, some that we might welcome and some that we might not. In collaboration with the Wellcome Trust we created a short video that gives an introduction to genome editing and what it could do.

This follows on from the International Summit on Human Gene Editing that we held with the US National Academies of Science and the Chinese Academy of Science and our Genetic Modification (GM) of Plants Q&A and video. Through this work it became clear that there is a broad range of technologies with a broad range of uses and implications and it seemed important to step back a bit and look at these genetic technologies in the round.

We are currently scoping a piece of work around genetic technologies looking at the cutting edge of the science and where it might go in the next 5 to 10 years, some of the uses of these genetic tools and what the implications might be, not only for advances in science, but also for culture and socially as well. As part of this scoping work, we are looking at where the policy debates are or might be and what opportunities and challenges the use of genetic technologies might bring.

We are not alone in looking at these. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recently released the first in a series of reports on Genome Editing. The first report canvases a wide range of uses of genome editing technology and the raises questions about the ethical, social and moral implications of their use. Following this the Nuffield Council on Bioethics will be focussing on two areas that they consider to be priorities:  the genetic modification of livestock, particularly those that are used for food, and the use in human germline cells that could be passed on to future generations.

These two different lines of enquiry highlight the different issues that arise from the use of genetic technologies. On the one hand the possibility for use in livestock is much closer to reality so there is a pressing need to discuss the implications of this use not only within livestock but in the wider debate about how we produce enough food equitably. On the other hand, use in the human germline will not happen unless we change the legislation, so it is important to have the conversation now so that if legislative change is a desired outcome then we have sufficient time to make this happen.

So these technologies do represent a step change in what we can do in the lab and the ways in which we can figure out what is happening at the genetic level. But how we use these technologies is a subject that requires a broader discussion and we are looking forward to being part of that.

 

We will be posting a series of blogs on genetic technologies as our work progresses so please watch out for them or sign up to our newsletter for policymakers to get updates to your inbox.