By Kristine Grace N. Tome, Program Officer II, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA)

ISAAA Inc., in partnership with the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research and the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC), gathered approximately 834 online participants during the webinar “Genetic Tools for Conservation and Health: What's the Role of Gene Drives?” held on November 16. The online session is the first of the 2023 Gene Drive Webinar Series that focuses on the interests of specific countries and aims to promote a productive and balanced conversation on the benefits and risks of possible gene drive applications relevant to national priorities. The Philippines, picked as the first country to be engaged in the webinar series, has been at the forefront of biotechnology research and regulation in Asia for a long time and plays an important role in shaping the region’s views on novel technologies and developing expertise.

Panelists at the first 2023 Gene Drive Webinar Series webinar "Genetic Tools for Conservation and Health: What's the Role of Gene Drives?"

A panel of experts tackled the potential of gene drive technology to address pressing health and conservation challenges in the Philippines and other countries. Dr. Nina Gloriani, a Clinical Microbiology Consultant at St. Luke's Medical Center in Manila, highlighted the country's struggle with infectious diseases, particularly with dengue fever and malaria. Gene drive technology, she suggested, could be used to control mosquito populations, the primary vectors of these diseases. She emphasized the potential of bacterial gene drives in addressing the country’s problem with anti-microbial resistance. Dr. Gloriani raised her concern about Filipino researchers' reluctance to conduct past genetically modified mosquito studies, emphasizing the need for stakeholder engagement to raise awareness about the benefits of gene drive technology.

Dr. Carmelita Villamor, a former Chief Science Research Specialist at the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB), addressed the issue of invasive alien species in the Philippines, emphasizing the damage they cause to native ecosystems and agriculture. Gene drive technology, she proposed, could be employed to control these harmful species. Dr. Villamor said that applications for gene drive research and their adoption in the Philippines will be handled by the Biosafety Committee, the same group of agencies handling the assessment of GMOs.

Dr. Brian Tarimo, a Senior Research Specialist at the Ifakara Health Institute (IHI) in Tanzania, provided an overview of gene drive technology, explaining its principles and potential applications. He discussed its current use in vector control efforts, including suppressing mosquito populations. There is little evidence that Anopheles mosquitoes are beneficial to the ecosystem. A study showed that their larvae serve as food to a fish species, but this fish also feeds on other organisms. Thus, eradicating them is unlikely to be harmful to the environment. The goal here would be to suppress the population of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes to reduce malaria transmission.

Prof. Paul Thomas, Genome Editing Program Director at The University of Adelaide, elaborated on the potential of gene drives to control invasive rodent populations responsible for environmental damage, loss of biodiversity, and devastation of bird nesting sites. Current methods to suppress them are both expensive and population-limited.

Invasive species, such as rodents, are good models to test gene drive technology because there is available knowledge about their genomes, they reproduce quickly, they can be propagated in the laboratory, they cause harm to the environment and the agricultural sector, and other tools to eradicate them are costly and time-consuming. Various gene drive techniques can be employed for rodent suppression; however, stakeholder and regulator engagement are key to inform the development of these approaches.