Written by Aaron Roberts, Institute on Ethics and Policy for Innovation at McMaster University

Over the past few years, one of the most frequent worries raised about gene drive research has been that existing guidance is ill-prepared to responsibly address novel technical aspects on the research process and potential deployment of synthetic gene drive mechanisms. This concern has led some to call for a moratorium on gene drive research.

In light of this worry, it is most encouraging each time another group of trusted experts and researchers releases a statement concluding that gene drive research ought to proceed. It is even more encouraging when, along with these statements, they offer new guidance updated to account for and responsibly manage the novel challenges synthetic gene drive mechanisms introduce. Each contribution strengthens our collective library of resources, as well as aids in building and refining the international consensus on gene drive research governance.

On October 30, the European Parliament Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity & Sustainable Development held the online event "Research and innovation for biodiversity: What role for gene drive research? The event was chaired by the MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho and had the objective to inform the EU institutions and stakeholders on the state of gene drive research, existing oversight as well as benefits and risks of possible gene drive applications.

Several experts in the Network contributed to the discussion. Prof Austin Burt and Prof Luke Alphey offered an introduction to how gene drive mechanisms function and an overview of ongoing research to develop gene drive applications to control disease vectors and invasive alien species, while Prof Claudia Emerson provided some reflections on the ethical aspects of gene drive research.

The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) recently launched a report addressing a variety of issues related to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Topics are discussed under the lens of the extractive sector but also shed some light on the challenges faced by projects working with emerging technologies research such as gene drive.

Engagement with indigenous people, state actors and the private sector are among the issues taken into consideration by the CCSI publication. The piece also features a chapter dedicated to lessons learned.

Check out the full publication here.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released its position paper on genetically modified mosquitoes for vector control. The publication offers a supportive view of the need for novel tools and research in this area, recognising the potential contribution of genetically modified mosquitoes.

The organisation also stressed the need for research to proceed step by step and with great care, not only for environmental and human health safety, but also with regards to ethical considerations. John Reeder, Director of WHO Research for Health Department, made it clear in his presentation that the organisation does not support a moratorium in this field.

Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work to develop CRISPR/Cas9. This was the first time that two female scientists have won the prize, approximately £861K to be shared equally between the laureates.

The Nobel Prize Committee highlighted that the “genetic scissors” have already benefited humankind greatly, despite having been discovered less than a decade ago. According to scientists, the technology has the potential to help fight many diseases in the future, including malaria, dengue, Zika and even cancer. It could also potentially help address current biodiversity loss trends and other environmental challenges.