The emergence of CRISPR-Cas9 research is one of those rare developments in scientific history where a very complicated, difficult to understand issue has captured the imaginations of the media, and subsequently the public. Inflammatory headlines such as ‘Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.’ belie the complexity of the issue and the long road of research that is ahead. One of the aspects of CRISPR-Cas9 research which has recently caused a significant stir, in both the scientific community and the public, is that of ‘engineered gene drives’.
Engineered gene drives however, which have been made possible through the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 protein, may well live up to the inflammatory headlines that have been associated with CRISPR in the mainstream media of late. This is because, while standard genetic modifications using CRISPR can only be made to a single offspring of a species, with no guarantee of inheritance for the next generation (particularly if that modification disadvantages that offspring), engineered gene drives offer the potential to produce modifications which can spread exponentially through a species with each new generation. Depending on the reproductive cycle and range of the species, the trait could be inherited universally within a few generations.
Naturally, this makes the potential for ecological impact, both good and bad, immense. In species with a short lifecycle such as the Anopheles Gambiae mosquito (the carrier of the malaria virus), it may be possible to completely eradicate their ability to transmit the disease within a few generations. This has already been observed in laboratory conditions, with a group of a thousand completely inheriting a modification within three generations. This would, if successful, wipe out one of the leading causes of death in middle to low-income countries. It would also not need to stop there. Invasive species and other disease-carrying species could all be neutralized. Vector-borne disease could become a thing of the past.
At what cost?
Of course, such widespread editing of genetics in the wild would by definition have significant impact on entire species and ecosystems. Due to this potential for impact, researchers are simultaneously exploring options for curbing the risks associated with engineered gene drives through a number of ways, including gene drives which counter the effects of others, and ones which die out naturally within a set number of generations. There also appears to be a natural resistance to species-wide gene drive inheritance due to the mechanism through which CRISPR works, which causes species to develop resistance to the allele with the gene drive associated with it. While researchers are working to overcome this hurdle, it appears that species-wide genetic modification is not quite here yet. There is certainly an unprecedented level of risk associated with engineered gene drives, but as with many things associated with CRISPR genetic research, it appears the level of danger presented by mainstream media sources may well be overblown.
We decided to ask our panel of international scientists, many of whom are involved in CRISPR and gene drive research, what their feelings are on the subject, and whether or not they think that the public’s fear surrounding gene drives is justified. The results revealed some fascinating insights to the scientific community’s response to gene drives, and a healthy dose of caution amongst those conducting the research themselves.
In total we had 830 respondents. However, we filtered out only the 546 respondents who were familiar with the concept of CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives and felt able to answer questions on the subject. Of those 546, 239 said that they are actively involved in CRISPR-Cas9 research. This sample is not representative of our community as a whole, but is rather a targeted group of respondents who are familiar with the subject.
We began by gauging the general sentiment of our community toward engineered gene drive research. Despite a small pocket of resistance, by and large the sentiment appears to be one of cautious optimism, with the majority favoring well-regulated research.
We then asked what level of risk they felt engineered gene drives pose in having a negative impact on a species or ecosystem. Here we see a growth in cautious sentiment, with the overwhelming majority selecting ‘some risk’. In the graph below, we have displayed the results by those who do and do not use CRISPR Cas9 in their research. As you can see, those who are involved in CRISPR research have about half as many people who view gene drive research as high risk, but the no risk and minimal risk segments do not change by much. Clearly the community, both those involved and those not involved in CRISPR research, acknowledge the need for caution going forward with these methodologies.
Several groups have called for temporary moratoriums on gene drive research, most notably activists at the 2016 UN Convention on Biodiversity, which have ultimately not amounted to any being put in place. Fascinatingly, the largest slice of our respondents said that they felt the moratorium that was suggested in 2016 should have been put in place. More interesting still, of those who said yes, 47.70% were themselves responded positively to being involved in research involving CRISPR Cas9. This shows the level of precaution being taken by the scientific community around this issue, as it is highly unprecedented for researchers who are currently working in a field to support even a temporary moratorium on research in that field.
When asked about their feelings toward the release of a ‘safe’ gene drive into the ecosystem to combat a disease like malaria, exactly half of the respondents felt that the benefits would outweigh the potential risks, with only 13.64% of respondents firmly stating that they would not support such a project.
However, when offered a potential solution of gene drives which ‘die out’ in a few generations, 36% of respondents who previously responded negatively said that they would change their opinion of the release of gene drives, implying that as research into gene drive safety mechanisms produce greater results, we will likely see sentiment around the release of gene drives into ecosystems shift to a more positive one.
One thing that was absolutely clear though, is that the overwhelming majority of our respondents agree that there need to be international regulations governing the research and usage of engineered gene drives, with 83.79% agreeing that they are necessary.
Based on our research, it is clear that there is a strong sense of caution surrounding gene drives amongst our respondents, but generally the sentiment appears to be optimistic about future research in the field and the ability of researchers to minimize the risks associated with them. There is also a clear desire, even by those involved in the research, to have strong regulation at the international level to ensure that research in the field moves forward in a safe and transparent fashion.
One way or another, we can be certain that engineered gene drives will have a significant impact on the future of genetics research, and may well be the key to conquering some of our most widespread ecological issues. The question now is whether or not international bodies like the UN can effectively stay abreast of this fast-paced area of research because, while failure to do so might not spell the disaster that some would have you believe, it could result in a host of large-scale unforeseen consequences.
If you want to know more about the state of CRISPR research, and the market around it, please take a look at our partner’s CRISPR market report here: https://www.gene2drug.com/product/2017-market-crisprcas9-products-services/