The full potential of genetic modification or GM technology to tackle some of the world’s most dangerous diseases is still not being realised well over a decade after it was first developed. The lack of effective international regulation, regional variations in public opinion and uncertainties about the long-term effects are all hindering progress, say scientists from The Pirbright Institute, in a new discussion paper.
Growing fears about outbreaks of insect-borne diseases such as Zika virus, and the environmental impact of chemicals, have increased interest in more environmentally friendly pest control options, such GM insects, which can suppress or replace insect populations - a technology in which the UK is considered a world leader.
Dr Anusha Panjwani and Dr Anthony Wilson from The Pirbright Institute argue in their opinion piece, published in PLOS Pathogens, that although appropriate risk assessment is essential, policy makers need to agree coherent, robust and more transparent international regulation for assessing and reviewing such emerging technologies.
Highlighting regional policy inconsistencies , the authors note that whilst the process used by the US and other regions examines both risks and benefits, the EU assessment process evaluates the risks alone. This, as the recent Science and Technology Select Committee Report concluded (which The Pirbright Institute contributed evidence to), is preventing the technology from reaching its full potential. (1)
Dr Wilson said, “Trial releases of GM insects for disease control are already happening in places such as the Caribbean, Malaysia and Brazil, but in other parts of the world, such as Europe, significant regulatory obstacles still exist well over ten years after the technology first appeared.
“Current regulatory frameworks need reviewing to better reflect the huge advances in this area. CRISPR gene-editing technology for example, has made it much easier to generate GM insects and has huge potential for supporting the fight against insect-borne disease without increasing the risks to the environment.”
Another issue for GM technology more generally is the significant regional variation in public opinion. There have been high profile protests against GM crops in the UK and Germany for example, in contrast to the more supportive stance amongst the public in other countries such as the US, Pakistan and Brazil. Other GM products, such as insulin or vaccines, have not met with such opposition.
Although effective two-way communication with the public about the risks and benefits of GM technology is vital, the authors say the picture is more complex. “Engagement with the public on this issue is not just about dealing with a knowledge deficit, it is about building trust both in the safety of the technology in the longer term and in the system for assessing and developing it”, said Dr Panjwani.
“Research shows that the public are in some cases even more concerned about the role of so-called big business in developing and profiting from this technology. The irony is however, that the vicious circle of tighter, more risk-adverse regulation, fuelled by public mistrust, will only drive up research and development costs, thereby making it more likely that the technology will be concentrated in the hands of fewer companies with the necessary resources.
“Greater transparency in the review process would allow both beneficiaries and stakeholders to have better informed discussions of proposed products and the results of trial studies. This will help reassure the public that assessments are receiving expert scrutiny, so building confidence in the process”, she said.
The authors acknowledge that in order to have greater transparency and a healthy spectrum of providers, this would require disclosure of data and methods that could be commercially sensitive, so discouraging innovation. They therefore propose a form of patent or embargo system, which would protect intellectual property whilst enabling greater transparency.
Dr Wilson added, “The current regulatory system is hampering our ability to fight diseases which kill millions of people every year. Policy makers should therefore consider not only the risks - but the risks of the status quo as well.”
(1) - Science and Technology Select Committee. Genetically Modified Insects: 1st Report of Session 2015–16. House of Lords, Committee SaTS; 17 December 2015.Government Response, published 1 March 2016
Image: Genetically modified mosquito larvae (Culex quinquefasciatus) - wild larva (left) and larva with added fluorescent marker gene (right). © Ilona Flis, The Pirbright Institute 2016