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UK Bioethics Group Issues Genome Editing Report

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has issued a 130-page report on "moral and societal questions" raised by genome-editing technology, and its existing and proposed applications.

"Although most uses [of genome editing] so far have been in research, the potential applications seem to be almost unlimited, given that the techniques are applicable to all organisms, from bacteria to plants, animals, and human beings," Andy Greenfield of the UK Medical Research Council's Harwell Institute, who chaired the report's working group, said in a statement. Included in the report were thoughts on how genome editing technology might affect human health, food, and the natural environment. The report also considered how the technology may be used by industry, the military, and amateur science organizations, and looked at broader issues such as how societies interact with scientific ideas and technologies.

The report is also the first phase of a program launched in 2015 by the Nuffield Council — an independent organization funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the UK's Medical Research Council — as a response to the CRISPR genome editing revolution. "There is concern that genome-editing science and innovation are moving ahead of public understanding and policy," the report stated, adding that the program's second phase will "explore the possible role that genome editing may and should have" in certain areas.

The report identified flashpoint issues such as human enhancement and genetically modified foods, as well as less contentious ones such as the use of genetically modified animals in research. For human health, the report outlined potential issues in biomedical research, treating and avoiding disease, and genetic enhancement. In addition to asking whether new genome editing technologies might challenge the idea of GMO regulation, the report also pointed to animal welfare and economic issues. Regarding the effect of genome editing on the wildlife and nature, the report considered the prospect of manipulating infectious disease vectors, ecological imbalance, and species extinction.

The report emphasized at several points that genome editing is challenging the role of science and technology in society, from several perspectives.

"When we think about how genome editing should be used, it is important to also think about how it should be governed. Given the public interest in the use of genome editing, an approach will need to be found that acknowledges that people arrive at these questions with different values, priorities and expectations," the report said. "It is especially as a technology converging with semiconductor and genome sequencing technologies, and other technologies that are also rapidly descending in cost and increasing in power, that genome editing holds genuinely transformative potential."

The report even delved into how genome editing is changing the internal mechanisms of the scientific enterprise. "Speed of diffusion may cause technology to become prematurely locked in, before the implications have been explored and evaluated adequately, or before related systems needed to optimize it are able to catch up," the council wrote.

The report further noted that several researchers said it was difficult to publish papers and obtain funding in certain fields without using genome editing in their work. "This suggests a potential, at least, for genome editing to crowd out other research, or change the deployment of research resources such as laboratories and staff, or even change the aims of research to those that are more amenable to genome editing," the report said.

The council concluded with a "triage" of the issues and a timetable for further reports delving deeper into particular uses of genome editing. The report also noted that editing of wild animal species to prevent disease transmission and xenotransplantation and humanized animals are areas that may deserve special attention in the near term.