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How gene-drive technology could help eradicate malaria

Written by Lieve Van Woensel, with Jens Van Steerteghem and Richelle Boone,

mosquito

© mycteria / Fololia

Should we be prepared to change the population composition of a species in order to wipe out a disease that is a terrible burden to mankind? During a well-attended working breakfast organised by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) on 19 March 2019, experts and citizens delved into the case study of eradicating malaria by applying gene-drive technology. This genetic tool could enable us to suppress mosquito populations that transmit malaria by reducing the number of females. This would be done by introducing in some mosquitos a genetic mechanism that easily spreads – ‘drives’ – through the whole population over generations.

The purpose of the event was to gain insight into the science and ethics of gene-drive technology, and of genome-editing technologies in general. The meeting was chaired by Kay Swinburne, (ECR, UK) a STOA Panel member, who underlined the importance of invigorating public debate on such technologies in her opening statement. With more than 200 million cases of malaria each year worldwide, of which over 400 000 are fatal, no one doubts the importance of fighting this disease. This, as Kay Swinburne explained, makes the case less controversial than, for instance, human genome editing, and therefore it provides a good opportunity to focus on understanding the benefits of genetic technology. Such an understanding, combined with knowledge of the risks and concerns, and with awareness of different stakeholder perspectives, should help policy-makers anticipate the application of genome-editing technologies. With three expert presentations and a debate, this event provided input on all these fronts.

First, Jens Van Steerteghem, of KU Leuven, and a former STOA trainee, gave the audience a technical overview of gene-drive technology in the context of eradicating malaria. His presentation was based on a scientific briefing that was used in a preliminary foresight analysis project on gene drive and malaria. This project aimed to map the potential societal impact of gene-drive technology and exposed the need for a general risk assessment framework for biotechnological applications. Jens Steerteghem explained how the number of female mosquitos would be suppressed if the gene-drive method were applied: by introducing in males a gene on the Y chromosome that cuts their X chromosome, so that they only pass Y chromosomes to their offspring. This offspring are consequently exclusively male, and additionally carry the new gene on their Y chromosome.

Delphine Thizy, Stakeholder Engagement Manager with the non-profit research organisation Target Malaria delivered the second presentation. This organisation is developing the gene-drive technology method to reduce malaria. Delphine Thizy described the current state of the research at her organisation, commenting that only in September 2018, their team published a paper on a successful eradication experiment on a mosquito population in a containment cage. She also addressed some of the misconceptions and concerns she hears when explaining Target Malaria’s plans. These worries are expressed both by citizens in Western countries but also, and more importantly, from stakeholders in countries in sub-Saharan Africa that suffer from malaria. People question, for example, if the targeted mosquito species are crucial pollinators, or if the reduction of mosquitos would disturb food chains. For both cases, she indicated that there is no need to worry: the targeted mosquitoes are not known to be pollinators and just three mosquito species would be targeted out of 830 species in Africa alone.

Next, Sybille van den Hove, Executive Director of the Bridging Sustainability Consultancy Company, informed and advised attendees on the precautionary principle. She first explained that there are many different definitions and interpretations for this principle. She prefers the European Environment Agency description: ‘The precautionary principle provides justification for public policy and other actions in situations of scientific complexity, uncertainty and ignorance, where there may be a need to act in order to avoid, or reduce, potentially serious or irreversible threats to health and/or the environment, […]’. Since one of these situations is the case of eradicating malaria with gene-drive technology, Sybille van den Hove explained that precaution should be a key principle in legislating on the issue. She listed many pieces of advice for policy-makers desiring to apply the precautionary principle, such as designing policy processes so as to allow for revision, thus making it easy to adapt to new knowledge; being open-minded; acknowledging the possibility of surprises; and being able to discard ‘bad good ideas’. Another recommendation was to be reflective, both by measuring an innovation against one’s societal visions and by being aware of broader philosophical discussions connected to certain topics.

During the debate following the three presentations, participants raised several interesting points. One called for attention to the possibility of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes again becoming prevalent in Europe as a result of climate change, a concern Delphine Thizy attenuated. It was also pointed out that tiger mosquitoes in Italy could be future targets of gene-drive, as they are carriers of diseases such as zika, dengue and chikungunya. Another attendee commented that better education and a global governance infrastructure would be necessary to successfully deal with new complex technologies. A fourth participant emphasised the need for a strictly philosophical discussion on genome editing, in addition to the debate on possible consequences. He argued that the moral question about using technology to instrumentally design an animal species for human purposes is what is fundamentally at stake. In the past, political views on biotechnologies were most often divided at this level of the debate.

Wrapping up the event, Kay Swinburne concluded that the dialogue between experts, policy-makers and the public should be continued. She also emphasised that she is happy that the EU’s strong regulatory framework prevents technologies such as gene-drive from being introduced for the sake of profit alone. She praised the fact that such implementations only take place after a serious debate that covers all aspects: from the ethical to the economic, and from the societal to the environmental. Because of this, she explained, for her and for many other policy-makers, support for innovation should not be understood as support for individual profits, but as support for the many benefits that could result.


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About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 25 MEPs nominated by nine EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.

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