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article imageOp-Ed: Gene Drive — Permanent alteration of genetic heredity gets tricky

By Paul Wallis     Jun 8, 2016 in Science
Sydney - If there’s one consistent thing about new gene technology, it’s that nothing is ever clearly explained and defined. Gene Drive is the ability to permanently alter genes, including passing on all the new genes to subsequent generations.
When it comes to wiping out whole species or permanently altering them, however, it’s a very new ball game.
The big new issues regarding Gene Drive are a whole new league. Imagine being able to wipe out malaria, dengue, whooping cough, sleeping sickness, et cetera. (One of the options is to make these diseases are unable to use vectors like mosquitoes, for example, to prevent their spread, which would effectively eradicate them.) Imagine being able to deal with invasive feral animals and plants quickly and simply. Imagine disease-resistant humans who never get sick.
Now imagine being able to weaponize technology like that to use against people. It’s a real possibility. Theoretically, it is possible to sterilize or simply kill an entire population. Gene Drive is based on a nearly 100 percent conversion rate. It works, and it’s a matter of opinion if anybody knows how to undo the damage after it’s done.
You wanna do something right? In this world?
Now consider the current state of genetic technology in the marketplace and society:
1. The bizarre behavior of Monsanto and other GMO companies for the last few decades.
2. The industries’ flat refusal to label or conduct generational testing on genetically modified foods.
3. The huge black market for gene technology.
4. Industrial and national espionage stealing technologies on a routine basis.
5. The maniacal behavior of global corporate and political cultures with all big money technologies.
6. The total failure of regulation to even claim to address public concerns.
Gene Drive is the new permanent press for your genes.
Gene Drive is the new permanent press for your genes.
Independent co. UK
This is the environment into which arguably one of the most significant discoveries of all time is now entering. It’s arguably worse than giving everybody on Earth a nuclear weapon and seeing what happens. (Note: on the illustration opposite, CRISPR is the method used to manage Gene Drive.)
The pity of it is that this new gene technology, in a sane society, would be an unmitigated blessing. The therapeutic possibilities alone create a whole new dimensions for medicine and health. In a society of nano-brained, corrupt fools, it’s highly debatable whether or not this technology will ever be used properly.
The big issues with Gene Drive are truly global in scale:
1. Arbitrary dictatorship of gene expression at the expense of individuality and perhaps valuable gene assets.
2. Possible severe ecological side-effects from spread of genetically modified organisms which might damage food chains, pollination, and other critical systems.
3. Weaponization is a real threat, moving closer by the minute — any kind of genetic weapon would by definition affect large numbers of people in many possible different ways. How do you repair hundreds of millions of genetically injured people?
4. It’s hard to define, let alone manage or prevent, a range of risks which don’t yet exist — expectations are that much more dramatic capabilities of Gene Drive will soon be discovered.
5. The law, as usual, is far behind the technologies. Creating safeguards, and managing enforcement of those safeguards is unlikely to be easy or quick. Given the usual constipated nature of American legislation, which is the usual guideline for global regulation, don’t hold your breath about this one.
6. The total lack of trust factor — the fact is that thanks to the vacuous antics of the GMO industry, public trust in gene sciences and anyone associated with them is at an all-time low. Public support for genetic science can only be achieved by some level of transparency and a degree of honesty which is currently totally lacking.
7. Non-delivery — just babbling on about the benefits of gene science, without noticeably delivering on any of them in the mass market, has been an absolutely catastrophic public relations exercise. GMOs are seen as a money making exercise, and a particularly sleazy/psychotic exercise at that. If gene science does any significant harm, public retaliation could set the science back by decades and put it under a mercilessly opportunistic populist microscope.
8. Viral interference — what if a virus hijacks some of the Gene Drive materials, and spreads through the entire microbe ecology?
9. Talking about hijacking — theft of technologies isn’t exactly unknown, either. The ramifications of some half-baked bit of Gene Drive technology, unsafe and untested, entering the global market are not likely to be funny.
Current thinking about Gene Drive
Most scientists are saying that caution is required. Unfortunately, this culture simply doesn’t listen to scientists, when it comes to developing commercial products, safety, human survival, or anything else. Imagine the demand for a product which would in malaria, for example, and then imagine someone trying to prevent its development.
One of the major issues now is releasing genetically modified organisms into the field. The overall consensus is that at the moment it’s not a good idea, mainly because of the large number of unknown factors. That said, it’s hard to seriously believe in a technology which isn’t field tested at some point, with or without the blessings of science. (Some people would argue that the mere fact that people disapprove would be a sort of stimulus for others to carry out tests. Sanity? What sanity?)
Another, very important problem is the fact that field testing would require some pretty stringent safeguards. How do you achieve clinical and ethical purity in in a jungle, an investor’s office, or some sprawling mega city? How do you deal with an unexpected situation in which a brand-new technology creates thousands of problems?
The caution is fully justified. The current cowboy corporate environment has to go. This technology is for the experts, not for the useless little spreadsheet worshippers. Unless the genetic science industries are prepared to conduct proper science without the endless expedient shortcuts and obfuscation, Gene Drive cannot be properly evaluated.
The bottom line with Gene Drive – It has to be safety or nothing
To be properly evaluated and tested, Gene Drive needs to come with preset test conditions, failsafes, and shutdown capabilities. Independent verification of testing must be mandatory, conducted by people with absolutely no relationship to the testing facility.
Field test results must be monitored over a period of organism generations. This needs to be done to ensure that unexpected side-effects, mutations, and ecological results are properly assessed.
Commercial release of Gene Drive technologies must be subject to testing and approval by regulators with no exceptions. Commercial use of Gene Drive technologies must be subject to regular review. Ongoing checks on technologies, consumer disputes, and other matters must be taken into account, and permission for commercial use withdrawn if necessary.
These technologies are far too new, as well as far too potentially dangerous, to be allowed into the global market without supervision. Permanent, inheritable gene alterations are no joke, and if they go wrong, nobody’s likely to be laughing.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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