Scientists mobilize for a fight over powerful gene-editing technology

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel: Scientists discover how to eradicate an entire species. Environmentalists want to stop the research. A United Nations committee invites experts to an online forum to consider the facts.

Behind the scenes, the scientists organize to present certain information. The environmentalists find out and get access to the scientists’ personal emails and dump them on the internet.

But it’s not fiction. It all happened — the first skirmish in a battle over what could be one of the most powerful technologies ever developed.

The technology is called gene drive. Scientists introduce a genetic defect that can spread rapidly through a population, causing it to die off.

A few years ago gene drive was just a theory. But it became a near-reality almost overnight once the CRISPR gene editing system made it easier for scientists to do precise genetic modification.

The recently discovered CRISPR/Cas9 system functions like molecular scissors, allowing scientists to modify the DNA of humans and other species with unprecedented ease.

Now many groups — including the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the U.S. military — are developing gene drive technology aimed at solving a variety of problems including wiping out disease-carrying insects and eradicating invasive mammals like rodents and rabbits.

But is everyone OK with the idea that we are approaching the ability to wipe out a species? Science has been moving so fast there’s been little time for the conversation.

Last December, 170 environmental groups at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Mexico called for a moratorium on gene-drive research. That call went unheeded, but it alarmed gene-drive scientists, and they’re fighting back.

That brings us to the great email dump last week. Scientists around the world were stunned when dozens of their personal emails suddenly appeared in the public domain — released by an environmental activist who obtained the documents through U.S. freedom of Information laws.

The emails reveal a Canadian public relations firm, Emerging Ag Inc., recruiting scientists to participate in an online UN gene-drive forum and notifying them when to jump into the discussions.

The people named in the emails told CBC News it wasn’t a nefarious cloak-and-dagger effort to game the discussions. Rather, it was simply a way of monitoring a detailed online discussion that went on for days and ensure that scientists were able to have a voice. After all, the environmentalists on the other side were also organized and co-ordinated.

‘It was well organized’
True, said James Thomas, of the Ottawa-based technology watchdog ETC, who participated in the UN forum. He was also actively involved in releasing the scientists’ emails. But he said the scientists were not transparent about the fact they were working together.

“There was a recruitment phase, and then they had phone calls with people to talk through what they should expect in the forum and how they should interact with it. And then they were sent an email every few days giving very specific instructions — this has been brought up, we need people to respond to this,” Thomas said. “It was well organized.”

The emails do reveal a co-ordinated effort to mobilize scientists to defend their research turf, an effort that is funded by deep philanthropic pockets. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has paid $1.6 million US to Emerging Ag for a three-year program to manage the scientists’ network, including setting up a website and organizing meetings. The network is so new they haven’t decided on an official name, but the working title is the Gene Drive Outreach Network.

Keep calm and let us do the research: that’s essentially the message from the new group.

“Our position is that the basic science that is happening on gene drive should continue while the questions are being answered about how to use it, when to use it, if to use it.” said Jeff Chertack, senior program officer with the Gates foundation, who was also involved in the email correspondence.

Thomas says, “There’s a lot of money trying to move towards a position where you can release gene drives and very actively trying to prevent precautionary decisions.

“And I think that just has to be transparent and on the table for everybody, which is what we were trying to do by releasing those details.”

Is this an effort to avoid the controversy that exploded when genetically modified organisms came on the market, triggering protests and causing some countries to ban the technology?

“I think there are echoes of that here,” said Chertack. “A pretty complicated technology that’s not well understood and where the facts maybe aren’t as well portrayed as the potential perceived risks of it.”

The Gates foundation has invested $75 million US in a program called Target Malaria that is funding research aimed at eradicating insect-borne diseases. And the U.S. defence research agency is spending $65 million US on a series of gene-drive and related projects.

“The presence of big money is not just structuring how the technology is presented but also how it’s governed, and that’s worrying,” Thomas says. “It’s the sort of technology that once you’ve released it, it’s too late. There’s not a stepping back.”

Chertack said, “This is a technology that is still at very early stages of its development cycle. Any field release of a gene drive, assuming all the questions have been answered on biosafety and biocontrol, wouldn’t be for at least another eight years.”

One group at the Imperial College in the U.K. has shown that gene drive in mosquitoes works in principle. The group also showed that mosquitoes developed a resistance after about 25 generations.

The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will meet next year in Egypt, and gene-drive technology is expected to be on the agenda.

As for the current controversy, the Convention Secretariat has received a formal complaint from some of the NGOs involved in the online forums. The Secretariat has also received a letter from Emerging Ag explaining their role in organizing the scientists.

“Here we have a company that was paid; that’s the first time I’ve seen that,” said Manoela Pessoa de Miranda,
acting senior programme officer of the Biosafety and Biosecurity Committee at the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity. “One could argue a lack of transparency, and I would agree with that — but there are no rules that were broken.”

The online forums were held last summer to help inform the convention’s technical experts. They met in Montreal last week to prepare a report that will be made public in a few weeks.
Photo credit: James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Associated Press.
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