In 2011, experiments that allowed the potentially deadly H5N1 flu virus to spread between mammals ignited intense discussions about whether such research should be done at all, much less published. But most of the debate occurred after the research had been carried out. Kenneth Oye, a social scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, thinks that the discussion needs to take place before the lab work starts. In an article appearing online today in Science, he and nine colleagues have outlined what they think needs to be done about an emerging technology called gene drive.
Gene drive involves stimulating biased inheritance of particular genes to alter entire populations of organisms. It was first proposed more than a decade ago, and researchers have been developing gene drive approaches to alter mosquitoes to slow the spread of malaria and dengue fever. Although progress has been quite slow, recent advances in gene editing could lead to a rapid application of gene drive approaches to other species, Oye and his colleagues predict. To avoid a repeat of the H5N1 brouhaha, Oye says, “what we would really like to see is good, well-informed discussion of the benefit and potential risks specific to the particular application, species, and context. … We need to do it before people get that hot about it.”
Oye is not alone in calling for government agencies, scientists, and the general public to figure out how to regulate the release of mosquitoes and other organisms with gene drive alterations. In June, the WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases issued guidelines for evaluating genetically modified mosquitoes. A year earlier, the European Food Safety Authority came out with a six-step protocol for environmental assessments of all genetically modified organisms. “People are beginning to think through these issues,” says Austin Burt, an evolutionary geneticist at Imperial College London. Introducing these genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild should, over time, cause the modified gene to spread throughout the population and interrupt malaria transmission. He and researchers at about 10 institutions are working on the idea, but he says they are at least 5 years from testing it in the field.