After Brexit, let’s embrace gene editing

EU rules are killing vital innovation in biotech.

Bill Wirtz

Virus-resistant tomato, disease-resistant rice, stem-cell treatment for paralysis, for heart disease, for spinal-chord injury and even for cornea repair — these are just some of the many innovations made possible through gene editing.

Canada has created permissive rules for these technologies, as has Japan, where scientists are working night and day to find therapeutic treatments that root out cancer and the Zika virus.

In Europe, however, the prospects are bleak. Bureaucrats and politicians are stifling the speed with which scientists can make breakthroughs available to consumers and patients. Granted, wealthy elites will always be able to fly to Tokyo or the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to get treatments. But for Brits who cannot afford this, we need laws and regulations that will allow for the research and development of innovative treatments.

Gene editing is effectively banned throughout the EU. The slightest word in favour of innovative technologies such as CRISPR (a prominent genome-editing technology) gets you yelled at by politicians and EU-funded NGOs alike. With Brexit on the horizon, the UK has a unique opportunity to embrace innovation.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel on the continent. At the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin next month, approximately 70 ministers of agriculture from around the world intend to adopt a communiqué about the global direction of agriculture. The hope is that these delegates will recognise the value in technologies like gene editing. In Germany, some green activists like the Youth Greens seem to be waking up to the problem. Several activists have warned that strict regulation makes the application of gene technologies more expensive, meaning only big corporates can afford it.

However, we cannot rely on what happens internationally. Britain has an obligation to its citizens to allow scientists to develop new cures and new foods for the 21st century. Brexit offers a unique opportunity to rethink biotech regulations as we break away from the EU’s anti-science dogma. We cannot let Britain lag behind in global innovation.

Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. Follow him on Twitter: @wirtzbill.

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18th December 2019 at 8:22 pm

Perhaps we could start by isolating the Tory gene and use gene therapy to destroy it entirely. Think of the benefits to mankind!

Marvin Jones

19th December 2019 at 2:03 pm

Bloody Hell! that would leave people like you to run riot in the cesspit.

Jon Hubs

19th December 2019 at 9:04 pm

An Austrian guy had a similar idea in the 1930’s.

steve moxon

18th December 2019 at 5:11 pm

Yes, contrary to the standard scientifically illiterate line, gene editing is not somehow contrary to ‘nature’ but along its lines. And, of course, human behaviour, such as scientists performing gene editing, is itself ‘nature’: all culture is biology; the facility for culture evolved because it serves to feed back to fine-tune and reinforce the very biology that gave rise to it, thereby having adaptive value.

B Fullerton

18th December 2019 at 11:34 am

“After Brexit, let’s embrace gene editing”
NO NO NO NO and Noooooooooooooooooooooooo you dangerous loon.

Ven Oods

18th December 2019 at 4:31 pm

You’re assuming that he wasn’t volunteering to be a subject.

steve moxon

18th December 2019 at 5:06 pm

You’re evidently a scientific (and philosophical) illiterate.

bf bf

18th December 2019 at 8:55 pm

Michael Antoniou, a London-based molecular geneticist, explained that significant changes could occur due to genetic editing, in both agricultural and medical contexts, necessitating long-term safety and toxicity studies. He explained:15

“Many of the genome editing-induced off-target mutations, as well as those induced by the tissue culture, will no doubt be benign in terms of effects on gene function. However, many will not be benign and their effects can carry through to the final marketed product, whether it be plant or animal …

Thus not only is it necessary to conduct whole genome sequencing to identify all off-target mutations from CRISPR-based genome editing, but it is also essential to ascertain the effects of these unintended changes on global patterns of gene function.

… In addition, it is important to acknowledge that the targeted intended change in a given gene may also have unintended effects. For example, the total disruption or modification of an enzyme function can lead to unexpected or unpredictable biochemical side-reactions that can markedly alter the composition of an organism, such as a food crop.

The compositional alterations in food products produced with genome editing techniques will not be fully revealed by the molecular profiling methods due to the current inherent limitations of these techniques. So it is still necessary to conduct long-term toxicity studies in established animal model systems. In the absence of these analyses, to claim that genome editing is precise and predictable is based on faith rather than science.”

Researchers at the U.K.’s Wellcome Sanger Institute systematically studied mutations from CRISPR-Cas9 in mouse and human cells, focusing on the gene-editing target site. Large genetic rearrangements were observed, including DNA deletions and insertions, that were spotted near the target site.

They were far enough away, however, that standard tests looking for CRISPR-related DNA damage would miss them. The DNA deletions could end up activating genes that should stay “off,” such as cancer-causing genes, as well as silencing those that should be “on.”16

CRISPR-Cas9 also leads to the activation of the p53 gene, which works to either repair the DNA break or kill off the CRISPR-edited cell.17 CRISPR actually has a low efficacy rate for this reason, and CRISPR-edited cells that survive are able to do so because of a dysfunctional p53.

The problem is that p53 dysfunction is also linked to cancer (including close to half of ovarian and colorectal cancers and a sizable portion of lung, pancreatic, stomach, breast and liver cancers as well).18

In one recent study, researchers were able to boost average insertion or deletion efficiency to greater than 80 percent, but that was because of a dysfunctional p53 gene,19 which would mean the cells could be predisposed to cancer. The fact remains that while these new technologies are fascinating with enormous potential to change the world, they’re highly experimental and the stakes are high.

B Fullerton

19th December 2019 at 12:36 pm

Yes…”scientific (and philosophical) illiterate”…..NOT

Marvin Jones

19th December 2019 at 2:06 pm

Like “Money Is God” in the right hands, so can gene editing be. Unless one hasn’t got a clue about what it is.

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