Gene drive technology has the potential to eliminate scourges like malaria – if we can develop the technology without provoking social license problems. It’s the lack of social license that has hobbled bioengineering to a small fraction of what we could have accomplished in the last couple of decades. Similarly, it’s the lack of social license that has hobbled global deployment of nuclear power.
Making gene drives practical is not yet a solved problem, though Bill Gates has said publicly that he thinks the foundation will be ready for trial releases in “a couple of years”. But how do we test the design of a CRISPR gene drive without a whole series of test releases? If people fear that testing means global impacts we will never be able to complete the initial tests.
That’s why I think the general category of gene drive inhibitor techniques are so important. Gene drive innovator Kevin Esvelt has a clear view of the social problem so he is investing effort to develop community support for the very first tests. Kevin is working with the community of Nantucket to suppress Lyme disease by releasing genetically engineered white-footed mice (the principal reservoir of Lyme disease). Bringing the community to a “let’s proceed” consensus is a slow process, but I’m sure Kevin is right. If we don’t do this right we risk losing access to a valuable technology.
Michael Specter did a terrific New Yorker article on the topic “Rewriting the Code of Life”. And don’t miss Kevin Esvelt’s nuanced interview with Joi Ito on the realities of developing practical gene drives and social license.
Follow Kevin Esvelt on Twitter @kesvelt.
Update: Here are my sources documenting the public position of Bill Gates on gene drive research and deployment:
Gates noted that the regulatory path for the technology is “unclear,” and that it’s not certain what will need to be done from a legal perspective before exterminating some species of mosquitoes in this way. However, he said, “I would deploy it two years from now.”
(…snip…) “I have to always show respect for people who think it is a scary thing to do,” Gates said. “I don’t think it will be. I think the way we’re doing the construct will make it a very key tool for malaria eradication.”
The new money will help Target Malaria “explore the potential development of other constructs, as well as to start mapping out next steps for biosafety, bioethics, community engagement, and regulatory guidance,” says Callahan. “It’s basically a lot of groundwork.” The Gates Foundation views the technology as a “long shot” that won’t necessarily work but, if it does, could effectively end malaria.
The foundation previously said it plans to have a gene-drive approved for field use by 2029 somewhere in Africa. But Gates, the founder of Microsoft, offered more enthusiastic prognostications in comments made this summer, saying the technology might be ready in just two years.