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Taking stock: Is gene drive research delivering on its principles?

In 2016, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) issued a report making a set of recommendations aimed at researchers, funders and policymakers for the safe and responsible research and development of gene drive technologies. A year later, a group of organizations self-identifying as sponsors and supporters of gene drive research came together to commit to the Principles for Gene Drive Research — a set of guiding principles signifying a collective commitment to practical, ethical and responsible scientific advancements in this field.

The Principles are intended to advance progress in gene drive research; foster transparency, conscientiousness, respect, and integrity; and support existing biosafety requirements and best practices as minimum standards for research. Over the last six years, the field has progressed rapidly on several fronts, with the Principles playing an essential role in shaping and setting high scientific and ethical standards.

In our recent analysis, we examined the progress made in adhering to the Principles within the gene drive research community. Our findings showed significant alignment with the goals and spirit of the Principles, from advancing quality science to engaging thoughtfully with affected communities, stakeholders, and publics. For instance, the gene drive community has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to advancing quality science in service of the public good (Principle 1). Major efforts and advancements have been made by projects developing gene drive technologies to address public health and conservation challenges. These include Target Malaria, the University of California Malaria Initiative (UCMI), and Transmission Zero, all with public health missions, as well as the Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd) program for conservation.

The emphasis on stewardship, safety, and good governance (Principle 2) has been central to the evolution of gene drive research. Numerous publications and coordination efforts have underscored the importance of robust risk assessment frameworks and mechanisms for effective governance. Transparency and accountability (Principle 3) have also been cornerstones of the gene drive research endeavor, with commendable efforts made to make technical and risk assessment reports readily accessible to the public through scientific journals, conferences, and online platforms.

Moreover, the last six years have witnessed a remarkable number of publications highlighting new frameworks, approaches, and best practices in engagement for gene drive research (Principle 4). Projects like Target Malaria and UCMI have published insights from their extensive community engagement efforts. Capacity building and education (Principle 5) have been instrumental in empowering stakeholders to navigate the complexities of gene drive technology. Collaborative efforts, including those led by organizations such as The African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) and the Pan African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA), have facilitated both regulatory and scientific capacity building. For instance, AUDA-NEPAD and the West Africa Health Organization (WAHO) established the West Africa Integrated Vector Management Programme (WA-IVM) “to promote a multi-sectoral approach in building robust regulatory systems for genetically based vector control applications”.

Looking ahead, the Principles remain relevant. Our analysis outlines a roadmap for the next phase of gene drive research, highlighting key areas of focus, including continuous fostering of transparent dialogue and engagement with stakeholders, as well as capacity building in settings where gene drive applications may be implemented. Through continued collaboration and commitment to these principles, we hope to further responsible research on gene drive technology and harness its potential to address some of the most world’s most pressing challenges in public health and biodiversity conservation.

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