Often, scientists in a fast-moving field try to keep a tight lid on their work until it is published. But the authors of a paper published in Nature Biotechnology this week have been unusually chatty about their work, broadcasting their results over the past year and airing their plans for further research.
Because the work would make it possible to modify the genetics of entire populations of organisms, it raises a host of ethical and safety questions. The researchers consider it wise to prepare their colleagues and the public for the results to come, and to solicit suggestions from the community about how to execute such experiments safely. The technique in question is an engineered ‘gene drive’ — a system that can spread a mutation through a population much faster than normal. The practice could wipe out some insect-borne diseases, including malaria. But an accidental release could trigger unintended, ecosystem-wide consequences. As such, research that involves gene drives must be handled with utmost care.
The paper, published on 16 November, could ease concerns about accidental releases (J. E. DiCarlo et al. Nature Biotechnol. http://doi.org/89h; 2015). A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, has demonstrated that gene drives can be engineered that will work in laboratory strains of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), but that are unlikely to function in wild populations. And if one did escape, the team showed that the mutation can be undone by setting loose a second drive to ‘overwrite’ it. The results suggest that careful planning can reduce the risks while allowing gene-drive research to continue.
The concept of a gene drive is decades old, but the technique’s application was hindered until the discovery a few years ago of a simple and versatile genome-editing system called CRISPR–Cas9. This system allows researchers to alter genomes with unprecedented precision and to engineer the fundamental components of a gene drive that transmit a copy of the edited sequence to nearly all offspring.
And because the CRISPR–Cas9 system is relatively easy to work with, the technology is now available to more laboratories than ever before. This is both a boon and a concern: it arms more great minds with a tool that could address serious public-health and environmental problems, but it also increases the chance that a laboratory might enter the field naive to the necessary safety precautions. This has understandably raised some safety concerns, and the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, for example, has convened a committee to evaluate uses of gene drives.
“Research involving gene drives must be handled with utmost care.”
With this in mind, the Harvard researchers have been careful to announce their experimental plans before they carry them out. The experiments published this week were alluded to in previous publications outlining safety precautions that could be taken. The authors gathered feedback from the community, and used this to boost the safety of their own experiments. They were also careful to develop these safeguards before carrying out key laboratory experiments to explore the use of gene drives against Lyme disease, which is transmitted to humans through ticks, and schistosomiasis, a scourge carried by parasitic worms and most often found in Africa. All of these experiments have been discussed openly, before they were carried out.
Such openness is not standard practice. Scientific experiments are often subject to approval by institutional safety committees and funding agencies, but these discussions tend to be carried out behind closed doors. The public is sometimes surprised by what emerges. Witness the reaction earlier this year, when researchers announced that they had used CRISPR–Cas9 to edit the genomes of human embryos (see Nature 520, 593–595; 2015). About three years ago, a charged debate and research moratorium ensued when news broke that researchers intended to publish results showing how they had engineered the H5N1 influenza virus to make it more transmissible.
The Harvard gene-drive researchers have learnt from these debacles, and recognized the need to alert the wider community to their plans so that discussions can take place, concerns can be aired and suggestions offered from all corners before the work is done. Scientists should watch closely to see whether this approach could serve as a template for other teams that take on the challenge of working in controversial fields.
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