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How to ensure that biotechnology is used for the good of humankind

WGS001B57 Its not science fiction its now Shutterstock 506591185
WGS001B57 Its not science fiction its now Shutterstock 506591185

We are living in an age where scientific advances seem almost miraculous.

 

Living organisms can be modified for our own purpose. Biotechnology can edit DNA, opening the door to possibilities as enormous as changing the course of human disease or ending world hunger.

 

But it also brings grave danger, since the consequences of reconfiguring nature in this way are not yet known.

 

And, ultimately, the course of human life itself could be changed. 

 

This is also, therefore, the age of great responsibility. And it is imperative to find a way of ensuring that biotechnology is always used for the good of humankind.

 

Science fiction-like scenarios

 

Biotechnology is not new. For thousands of years farmers have improved plant species through cross pollination or changed an animal’s characteristics through cross breeding.

 

But scientific advances have brought the technique into the laboratory, making it achievable on a scale never seen before.

 

Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder and President of Biotech Without Borders, told the World Government Summit 2018 in Dubai that biotechnology was “the most advanced manufacturing system on earth.” 

 

Reading DNA code has become cheaper than ever before, ushering in an era of personalised medicine and treatments, said Jorgensen.

 

“We are not just understanding our genome; we are editing it. We can now edit the human embryo. For the first time we are facing science fiction-like scenarios,” she said.

 

Eliminating malaria

 

There is no doubt that biotechnology has the potential to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as food security, energy and healthcare.

 

For instance, based on current scientific knowledge it is technically possible to eliminate malaria, one of the world’s biggest killer diseases, within a year, as Jennifer Kahn, Lecturer at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, explained to the World Government Summit 2018.

 

Kahn outlined how the genome-editing technology CRISPR enables researchers to permanently modify genes in living cells and potentially correct mutations to treat genetic causes of disease.

 

One such CRISPR-based tool is a gene drive, where a genetic change is initiated in an organism via its reproduction cycle.

 

“If you put an anti-malarial gene drive in just 1% of Anopheles, the species that transmits malaria, researchers say that it could spread to the entire population within a year. So in a year, at least hypothetically, you could virtually eliminate malaria,” Kahn said.

 

But gene drives can have unintended consequences and the potential to disrupt other species and ecosystems, she warned.

 

Massive regulatory dilemmas

 

Gene drives can be a way of getting rid of an invasive species, such as the Asian carp in European rivers, by editing the species to produce only male offspring. In theory, this means we could restore species brought to the brink, Kahn explained.

 

But the bad news is gene drives are so effective that if the modified carp accidentally got taken to Asia it could wipe out the entire national population. In addition, it may not stay confined to the target species and could spread to neighbouring species.

 

Kahn explained that scientists are working to build in safeguards, such as a reversal drive, or an off switch. 

 

Gene drives also have other limitations. For one thing they only work in sexually-reproducing species, so not bacteria or viruses, and only with those with a rapid reproductive cycle. It wouldn’t work on humans and elephants, as the effects would take centuries.

 

These technological advances open massive regulatory, ethical and moral dilemmas. Who should have access to the technology and decide how and where it is used. Mosquitoes and carp don’t respect country borders. What happens if one country wants to use biotechnology to modify a species, but a neighbouring country doesn’t. Who makes the final decision?

 

Democratizing science

 

Governments have a critical role to play, but the problem is that the technology is moving faster than governments can keep up, said Kahn.

 

“We have to openly weigh the risk and benefits based on best scientific evidence and then carefully and transparently communicate the findings. This is not going to be easy,” she added, “the anti-vaccine movement shows people don’t always trust scientific studies.”

 

Governments and non-governmental organisations also have a key part to play to both support and raise awareness about the science. “Our most important job as government and as citizens is to understand the important impacts, and to discuss them with intelligence and clarity,” said Kahn.  

 

“Whether or not we manage to do that may literally determine our future.”

 

Jorgensen, whose non-profit organisation is dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology, argued that the conversation must involve everyone. “We can democratize this technology, or at least get everyone to participate in some hands-on way or understand it better. All this progress is completely unknown in a lot of circles. In some communities it is not generally known that the ability to edit the human genome even exists.”

Her argument is that the very people that will be affected by this technology have to be part of the conversation.

 

In this way, she argued, we can foster responsible innovation and make sure that everyone benefits, not the few.

 

“We are living in an age of miracles and these miracles need to be shared.”