Viewpoint: Gene Drives Need Global Policing
Medical and biological research is being transformed by a powerful new form of genetic editing, known by the acronym Crispr. Based on a naturally-occurring system in bacteria, Crispr enables scientists to precisely alter the genetic code of any organism they can lay their hands on – humans included.
Researchers have plenty of applications in mind for Crispr. One of the more compelling uses would put modified genes into wild populations of organisms. Done properly, this could dramatically curb the spread of infectious diseases. But there are risks that cannot be brushed aside. Without international regulation, this amazing new technology could cause serious damage to the ecosystem.
Most of the public attention relating to Crispr has focused on the manipulation of human embryos, first carried out in China last year, and now approved for use in the UK. In December, a Crispr summit in Washington declared that changing human genes in a way that could be passed to the next generation should be forbidden, for the moment. However, the development of treatments that alter only the tissues affected by a particular disease – for example blood cells – is allowed, and clinical trials may start within a couple of years.