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Published 17 November 2016

Revolution occurring in gene editing has significant implications for New Zealand

The revolution occurring in gene editing technology is happening quickly and has significant implications for us to consider as New Zealanders, according to the Royal Society of New Zealand.

New gene-editing techniques are revolutionising the ease and accuracy of making changes to genetic material.  

These new technologies have the potential to bring huge benefits, including in healthcare, agriculture and conservation. Their development and use around the world is accelerating at pace, but what will be the implications for New Zealand? 

Evidence suggests that the technology has the potential to solve genetic diseases like Huntington’s disease, produce crops adapted to climate change, or wipe out malaria transmission by mosquitoes.  New Zealand-specific examples could be cows that produce low levels of methane or using the technology to meet our predator free ambitions.

“These new techniques are promising, especially because of how precise and reversible they are compared with traditional breeding or genetic modification techniques. This reduces the chance of unintended consequences.  However, there are also important legal and ethical decisions to be made about whether we wish to allow this technology to be used without restriction in New Zealand,” observed Royal Society of New Zealand President, Professor Richard Bedford.

“As New Zealanders we might decide we want to use it to solve medical problems like haemophilia, but not to build ‘designer babies’. It’s important to understand what this new technology is and what it could be used for so that we can have an informed discussion about where New Zealand’s boundaries are for adoption of these technologies and the speed at which we wish to adopt them.”

To help us all understand the advances occurring in gene editing, the Society has prepared a fact sheet, infographics and an animation in simple language, explaining current gene-editing technologies and what they are already being used for around the world.

The Society has also convened a multidisciplinary panel of New Zealand’s leading experts to consider the implications of gene-editing technologies for New Zealand, including the research, ethical, social, legal, regulatory, environmental and economic considerations.  This panel will also consider New Zealand’s unique cultural perspectives.

Professor Barry Scott, co-chair of the panel, a Vice President of the Society and a Professor of Molecular Genetics at Massey University, says the use of gene-editing technology has taken off worldwide following the development of a technique called CRISPR in 2012, which has dramatically reduced the cost and difficulty of gene editing compared with other techniques.

“Already they are being used to make immune cells attack cancer cells and to create more hardy and productive plants and animals, much faster than conventional agricultural selection has allowed.  Interest in using gene editing to introduce a sterilisation gene into a pest as part of a pest-eradication programme is understandably high in New Zealand, given the challenges facing our biodiversity.

“Another factor to consider is how difficult it is now becoming to distinguish between genetic changes generated by conventional breeding, gene editing, or natural mutation, which may make the new gene-editing technologies difficult to regulate and will challenge New Zealand’s existing regulatory regime.

“The panel seeks to inform public debate by providing an independent evidence-driven assessment of what the implications of the huge expansion in the use of gene editing technologies worldwide could mean for New Zealand.”

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi