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European ethics group expected to publish ‘Opinion’ on the ethics of gene editing this spring.

“What is so special about gene editing? It’s a technology that in principle is easy to apply, cheap and precise.”

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) is expected to publish an Opinion on the ethics of gene editing this spring, Bio Market Insights has learned.

Opinions examine the intersections between science and technological advances and broad societal, ethical and fundamental rights issues. They identify emerging and future developments, examine their implications across a wide spectrum of policy areas and issue recommendations.

The EGE Opinion will comprise an analysis of the ethical, societal, fundamental rights implications of genome editing applications in humans, animals and plants, together with a set of policy recommendations. In July 2018, the European Commission (EC) requested the EGE, a group of gene-editing experts who advise the EC, to prepare the Opinion for it to review.

The policy recommendations will be of great interest for those working within the synthetic biology sector and those dealing with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Synthetic biology involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities and by engineering organisms for new purposes, scientists can produce new food, fuels, drugs and chemicals for beneficial reasons.

A European Commission (@EU_Commission)spokeswoman told Bio Market Insights (BMI) that the Opinion is expected to be published “in spring this year”.

Late last year, the EGE held a roundtable on the ethical aspects of gene editing. It focused on gene editing in humans, animals and plants.

Speaking at the roundtable, Professor Christiane Woopen (@CWoopen), Chair of the EGE, said: “What is so special about gene editing? It’s a technology that in principle is easy to apply, cheap and precise. Thus, pragmatic obstacles disappear in favour of a low threshold and broad application. Thus, far reaching questions arise.”

She went on to say that the issue of gene editing required “a broad and in-depth societal debate about the biological shape of the world we want to live in”. Woopen maintained: “Eventually, we have to discuss, amongst other issues, our concepts of nature and naturalness, their moral significance and our role in shaping it.”

In general, Woopen acknowledged that the scientific community fully recognises the need to tread carefully in this area and to lay down specific guidelines for responsible practice.

Separately, speaking to the EU’s research and innovation magazine Horizon, Woopen said that DNA has never been easier or more precise thanks to the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool, leading to hopes of fixing creating drought-resistant crops and breeding larger, hardier livestock.

However, she acknowledged that “as scientists become increasingly bold in their ambitions to control the biological world by tampering with DNA, there is growing concern over the potential for misuse”.

She cited the 2018 “global public outcry” when it became public that gene-edited twins were born as a result of gene-editing work by the Chinese scientist He Jiankui.

Commenting on the power of CRISPR technology, Woopen told Horizon that she was concerned about amateur civilians getting their hands on the innovation “because powerful tech in the wrong hands can make a lot of trouble”, adding: “You could, for example, gene edit bacteria which are very infectious and causes disastrous diseases, and which can be transmitted from one person to another in a very easy way, creating an epidemic with a very burdening disease.”

She went on to say that the techniques are quite simple to apply, stating “you don’t’ need to be a great expert to use CRISPR technology”.

Woopen also said that you can order gene editing kits on the internet and they are not too expensive. “There are public laboratory spaces where you can already do gene editing yourself,” she explained. “There has to be regulation in this area, such as licencing and registration, so we know what is going where and who is using what.”

In relation to CRISPR being used to edit genes in plants, Woopen said there is a lot of potential to grow healthier crops that require less pesticides and that can adapt to difficult environments, such as droughts.

She explained: “The cultivation of these plants would be more efficient and would contribute to the fight against famine. But, of course, we need to take care of our environment as well. Our concerns pertain, amongst others, to biodiversity – we don’t want plant species to become extinct because only certain (ultra-efficient and resilient) strains are grown.”

In a similar vein, speaking to BMI recently about synthetic biology, Christopher J. Preston, an academic focussed on the ethics of emerging technologies, said: “The technology is going to have an influence on everyone, so we need a wide ranging and inclusive debate on what a Synthetic Age really means. With such huge developments available, we need the future to be as far as possible, a matter of deliberation and democratic choice.”

The EGE is not the only group analysing the ethics of gene editing. The World Health Organization (WHO) is also looking to examine the options for global governance for CRISPR technology.

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