Academy: Genome editing demands public debate and clear-cut regulation

21 November 2016

A broad international discussion is needed on genome editing. The main question is not whether we should use genome editing but in what way and for what purposes. Existing regulations governing genetically modified organisms must also be re-evaluated because their relevance to genome editing is by no means clear.

These are the observations of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in a position paper on the scientific, ethical and societal aspects of genome editing.

Rapid advances have been made in recent years in CRISPR-Cas and other genome-editing techniques. They offer a precise, inexpensive and efficient way of modifying or switching off genes in living cells by removing, replacing or inserting pieces of DNA. Unlike older techniques, genome editing is much more targeted: it only alters one or a few letters of the DNA alphabet and leaves the rest intact. The Academy argues that research making use of genome editing should continue, naturally in compliance with the relevant rules, because it will quickly produce new insights about gene functions, the new techniques themselves, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Genome editing in people

In future, genome editing could be used to treat or prevent illnesses, for example metabolic disorders and cancer. Such applications are adequately regulated under existing regulations, but public discussion is required before any future use of genetic editing to improve functions in healthy people, i.e. ‘genetic doping'

Genome editing can also be used to make genetic modifications to germline cells or embryos, with the modifications then being passed on to subsequent generations. This use is prohibited in Europe and the Netherlands. The Academy considers it irresponsible to use genome editing in this manner until we know enough about the risks and society has reached consensus about its acceptability. Only then should legislation be amended to permit such use, subject to specific conditions.

Genome editing in animals

Genome editing is important for treating and preventing animal diseases and for improving animal welfare and the production traits of farm animals, as well as for combatting infectious diseases transmitted by animals to humans, for example by altering the genome of mosquitos.

In practice, genetic engineering of animals is now only permitted in the Netherlands for biomedical purposes . The Academy believes that a re-evaluation is in order, as genome editing has the potential to improve animal and human welfare. Before genome editing can be applied more broadly in animals, however, society must have reached consensus about the applications concerned.

Genetic mutations are sometimes so small that they could also occur spontaneously. It is not clear whether the regulations governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) apply in such instances. The Academy would like to see more clarity on this point.

Genome editing in micro-organisms and plants

Scientists have been genetically modifying micro-organisms for dozens of years with a view to developing new products or accelerating production, for example in the case of drugs, chemicals and food products. Genome editing can speed up this process. Genome editing also offers many opportunities for the agriculture and horticulture sectors. It is faster and more efficient than traditional plant-breeding methods when it comes to producing better quality, disease- and pest-resistant crops with higher yields for.

The Academy once again proposes clarifying and simplifying the relevant legislation, in any event for modifications of the genome of micro-organisms similar to those that occur in nature or that can be created using traditional techniques. After all, the risk to human beings and the environment is comparable. The regulations should focus on the product’s safety, and not on the technique used. There are also practical reasons: the end products of different techniques are indistinguishable, and that makes enforcement difficult.

Download the Academy’s Position paper on Genome Editing (pdf)

The Academy organised a symposium on this topic on 7 September 2016. More information is available on this page (Dutch).