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Published 19 December 2017

New Zealanders encouraged to consider potential uses of gene editing

Royal Society Te Apārangi is encouraging New Zealanders to consider and share their views on some potential uses of gene editing in New Zealand.

To assist the public discussion, it has published two papers that outline scenarios for the use of gene editing for both pest management and healthcare. A further paper with scenarios for the use of gene editing in primary industries will be published soon, along with a paper examining current legislation and regulation.  

The papers have been produced by a multidisciplinary expert panel convened by the Society and co-chaired by Professor Barry Scott, who is also Vice President of the Society and a Professor of Molecular Genetics at Massey University. 

“In producing these resources we sought to set out relevant considerations on how, practically, gene-editing techniques could be applied in these areas, as well as highlight important legal and ethical considerations to help people engage with the topic,” says Professor Scott. 

“The technology of gene editing offers society a wide range of opportunities such as curing diseases and eradicating pests but, like all new technologies, there are uncertainties and there may be areas where collectively we are comfortable to use the technology and areas where we are not.

“One scenario we explore in the pest control paper is using gene editing to stop possums from reproducing in New Zealand, to reduce the burden on our native plants and animals. Practically there would be some challenges as no one has gene edited marsupials yet and there is uncertainty around how to build a suitable ‘gene drive’ to reduce fertility in the possum population. From an ethical standpoint some may prefer this approach to pest control as it removes the need to use poison or traps. But then there is the risk of what happens if gene-edited possums get to Australia, where they are a protected species and an important part of the ecosystem. Regardless, there is still much research required and it is likely to be many years before such techniques are sufficiently refined to use them.

“The scenarios in the healthcare paper explore opportunities to cure or prevent disease in an individual; or reduce disease risk or enhance biological function in offspring.  Perhaps New Zealanders might feel comfortable using gene editing to cure a disease in an individual, especially for one of the 3,000 disorders linked with a known gene mutation. But they may be opposed to germline therapy, which can pass changes on to future generations. It will be interesting to hear their views. 

“In producing these resources, we want to enable New Zealanders to come to an informed opinion on how they feel about the use of gene editing, which can feed into the process of deciding how the technology will be regulated in New Zealand.  The panel considers it important that New Zealand continues to invest in research in the application of these technologies.  We need to stay up to date with global developments and trends, as well as better understand New Zealand’s particular opportunities and societal attitudes.

“The panel has been very fortunate to be able to draw on the expertise of a Māori reference group to enable our deliberations to encompass Māori perspectives and broader cultural contexts,” Professor Scott said. 

The Society will be running a number of stakeholder forums to discuss the technology in the new year.

The discussion papers being released, which both have companion technical summaries with full details, follow on from resources produced last year to explain gene-editing technology. These are available at royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing-technologies

They also follow on from a series of panel discussions held this year, Editing Our Genes: Promises and Pitfalls, hosted by Kim Hill and featuring US-based bioethicist Josephine Johnston and New Zealand experts, which discussed the potential use of gene editing in different sectors. These discussions were recorded by RNZ and are available online.  

All resources are available from royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi