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In its continuing efforts to widen scientific knowledge, the Department of Science and Technology - Biosafety Committee (DOST-BC) invited Dr. Matthew Grellette of the McMaster University’s Institute on Ethics and Policy for Innovation (IEPI) to give a lecture about “The Ethics of Gene “Drive Technology”. The webinar was held last 17 December 2021 via Zoom platform.

Dr. Matthew Grellette is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy and leads the Emerging Technology and Innovation Research Pillar within McMaster University’s Institute on Ethics and Policy for Innovation (IEPI). 

His research interests include the ethics of emerging technology, as well as global health governance, environmental philosophy, and legal and political philosophy. Dr. Grellette’s current research is aimed at improving ethical and regulatory frameworks for the assessment of emerging technologies, and his work with IEPI aims to support global health projects that make an immediate and measurable difference on the lives of people around the world.  

Dr. Grellette holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from McMaster University and a Master’s in the Study of Law from the University of Toronto. He also studied jurisprudence at Oxford University’s School of Law and has a certificate in Global Health from the University of Malawi. 

According to Dr. Grellette, based on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), gene drive is a naturally occurring phenomenon where “a particular heritable element biases inheritance in its favor, resulting in the gene becoming more prevalent in a given population over successive generations”. This means that when a gene drive is in play, a particular gene is driven to progressively increase its frequency in a population as much as doubling its prevalence in a single generation.

Dr. Grellete also highlighted that there are various types of gene drive which can be found in the wild. Seven (7) years ago, researchers have discovered a way to create a synthetic version of those mechanisms, and how to introduce them into populations where they don’t previously exist. This means that for the last seven (7) years, we have already learned how to introduce a hereditary preference to a specific gene and its associated traits into  wild populations. As an example, scientist can now theoretically create a gene drive to push the spread of OCA2 gene in humans which is responsible for human’s brown eyes.

Dr. Grellette also mentioned that, not only that we have discovered how to drive gene that are pre-existing like brown eyes but have also figured out how to drive artificially introduced genes through target population. This scientific breakthrough leads the researchers in California in the discovery of how to artificially introduce and drive a new gene into existing plant population that can be resistant to drought.

Modification Drive vs Suppression Drives

Dr. Grellette identified two types of gene drives, modification drive and suppression drive. Modification drive is the one where we can introduce a hereditary preference to a specific gene and its associated traits to a pre-existing gene. On the other hand, suppression drive is designed to introduce a genetic change that will then lead to a reduction or suppression of population numbers. One example is that of reducing the population of invasive mice species by increasing the proportion of male offspring being born. With this technology, the number of male mice would soon be higher than the female mice that would ultimately lead to a drastic drop in their population.

However, Dr. Grellette underscored that the used of these gene drives is extremely contentious as this technology has the capacity to change or suppress wild organism even to the point of the species extinction.

Ethical and Political debate of the use of Gene Drive

Dr. Grellette also set forth the importance of understanding the deliberation over the gene drive technology (GDT) which can be broken down into two basic parts. These are the substantive and procedural considerations.

Substantive consideration is the deliberation of whether we ought to develop and employ this technology or whether to prevent its emergence and restrict its application, while procedural consideration deals with the agreement on the use of the technology, identifying where, when, and how it will be appropriately applied.

Substantive Consideration

There are three (3) concerns that often are questioned in employing the technology:

  • Human Health

The gene drive technology is widely promoted as offering a low cost, high impact way of enhancing human health, and in particular, it helps to prevent the spread of vector-borne diseases such as Malaria, Dengue, and Zika. In the case of Dengue which is a major source of morbidity around the world, despite the government efforts in preventing the virus through spraying insecticides and removing mosquito’s breeding sites, we are still faced with the same scenario, with the same number of infected cases, and it is proven laborious and not cost efficient. Alternatively, by applying the gene drive technology, specifically by developing a modification drive that would adjust the genetic traits of the mosquitoes or suppression drive that would push down the population of mosquitoes, these could prevent the spread of the disease.

But concerns on the use of this technology are also being raised such as how well can gene drive control the disease, will it deliver on its promise? How about its negative influence like its dual use concern in research, with its potential to be used in acts of genetic warfare.

  • Agriculture

In the field of Agriculture, Dr. Grellette states that this is another opportunity to aid the quality of life and alleviate certain problems pertaining to agriculture. While some country reaps the harvest of their agricultural lands, some country may experience otherwise.

Dr. Grellette gave as an example the Fall Armyworm. The moth is indigenous to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas but in recent years it has spread around the globe and created havoc and devastation to crops worldwide which already caused food crisis due to how effectively they destroy the crops.

Dr. Grellette explains that by using suppression drive, it can lessen the population of the Fall Armyworm to the point that agricultural land that was once infested by the moth can now grow crops without having any fears of being devastated and ultimately alleviate the food crisis in some countries.

But there are still some skeptics who objects with the idea, claiming that modifying/suppressing the population will have a great effect on the food chain and would bring about huge ecological changes.

  • Environment

When it comes to the environment, while there are people who seem to be skeptic about the technology, there are also people who highly praised and accepted the technology, and consider this scientific technology as the best hope of saving the environment. The use of suppression drive can help solve the problem of invasive species that are considered threat to humans and towards the eco-system. Modification drive, on the other hand, can be used as a tool to help save species that are susceptible to climate change.

But whether to employ/embrace GDT or not, depends upon these three considerations:

  1. which potential benefits and harms one deems likely
  2. how one balances the expected benefits and harms
  3. how one chooses to respond to technological uncertainty and risk

Another side of the argument is on the intrinsic value that many find in the natural world which is awe inspiring and encompasses the history, beauty, uniqueness, diversity,  and gives value to life. It is rooted to the notion that when something possesses intrinsic value it deserves to be treated with respect for what it is, with concern for its welfare or in a just manner. This, in comparison to the value that many find in human mastery in the form of knowledge, understanding, invention and innovation. It could be interpreted as we should not intervene in nature by using GDT as the natural state of affairs is something that ought to be protected, and that would be disrupted by the use of GDTs. By using GDTs, humans would take up the role of ‘designers’ of nature, and this would be morally impermissible.

These two arguments contrast with each other in a way that finding value in nature seems to call for adjusting human activity in order to accommodate nature, while finding value in human mastery seems to celebrate the alteration of nature to support human activity. On the other hand, it may be possible for the community, or society to share both values to some extent. Perhaps, each stance even implicates the other: preservation of natural phenomena can be aided by appropriately directed efforts to understand and intervene in the world, and human activity in the world depends on trying to accommodate the natural world.