New Zealand Law Society - Species-altering technologies need law fit for purpose

Species-altering technologies need law fit for purpose

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The Government’s Predator Free 2050 strategy is sometimes touted as depending on the feasibility of “gene drive” biotechnology, which allows an infertility gene to be introduced to a pest species with the aim of wiping it out.

But Law Foundation-backed researchers believe there are many questions about how potential uses of the technology would be regulated. The Sustainability Council of New Zealand is starting a six-month project examining the legal and regulatory requirements for managing some of the new biotechnology applications, with a focus on gene drive.

Biological stem cell
Nuclei (green), and neuronal marker Tuj1 (red) of a mouse motor neuron, differentiated from an embryonic stem cell engineered with CRISPR/Cas9.

The Council’s executive director Simon Terry says that the promotion of gene drive as a tool for conservation has got well ahead of its current capacity to deliver and the arrangements needed to manage it.

“The researchers are clear that developing a gene drive for mammals will take at least a decade, and even then it may not work.

“Current techniques like traps and poisons are going through a revolution equally as impressive as advances in biological science. There have been exponential gains from extending such existing approaches, and conservation experts recognise these will have to do the heavy lifting – with or without gene drive,” he says.

However, conservation is just one area where the new biotechnology applications could impact and the study is not focused on any sector or application. The researchers are looking at the bigger question of whether the law as it stands is fit for managing all the potential challenges coming forward.

“For example, twenty years ago, regulation was developed on the understanding that these technologies would be contained in a laboratory, a field, or at least within national boundaries. But the gene drive technology relies for its effectiveness on its spread,” Mr Terry says.

An article in Nature reports that if possums were targeted in New Zealand as a pest, there is a risk that such GM possums could somehow end up in Australia and harm a population that is highly valued in its native environment.

New techniques like “CRISPR” (that delivers a gene drive) have made it faster, easier and cheaper to modify genes, but they have also opened up new risks and issues. Among these are: how would removing a particular species impact on the overall ecosystem, what “off-target” effects could result, and how would New Zealand respond to unexpected and unintended impacts?

Debates on managing the revolutionary new gene drive technology are taking place around the world as scientists and regulators become aware of its potential, and its risks. Last year the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine endorsed continued research on the technology through carefully controlled field trials, noting there was insufficient knowledge of the unintended consequences of gene drive to justify release into the wider environment.

There is considerable research into gene drive underway in New Zealand currently, including a Royal Society review of gene editing, but this is not focused on what governance may be required to meet New Zealand’s interests around gene drive and related techniques.

“This project will assess the adequacy of the governance arrangements in place. It is important to know where the gaps are before proposed uses of the technology arrive on our doorstep” Simon Terry says.

Potential beneficiaries of the project include agricultural producers, lawmakers, government departments, conservation groups, the scientific community as well as the wider public.

Lynda Hagen lynda@lawfoundation.org.nz is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation. For more information on Law Foundation-funded projects, visit www.lawfoundation.org.nz.

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