Brexit gives the UK an opportunity to attract the best gene-editing talent
Viscount Ridley says gene-editing technology has extraordinary promise in bringing about major improvements in medicine and agriculture.
Gene editing is a technology that is just a few years old and still rapidly evolving. Its extraordinary promise – the ability to snip out or replace a few letters of DNA code in a gene with remarkable precision – is already beginning to deliver, however. There are people alive today who were cured by gene editing – to change their immune cells to attack their cancers. There are pigs that have been rendered resistant to disease, by removing a tiny piece of code that a virus needs to enter a cell. There are crops rendered richer in healthy omega-3 oils.
Who knows where the technology will do next? Render mosquitoes unable to spread malaria? Fine-tune animal organs so they can be transplanted into people without producing an immune reaction? Eventually somebody may use it to de-extinguish extinct species of bird and mammal. Already a team is working out how to (one day) edit the genome of a band-tailed pigeon so as to revive its extinct relative, the passenger pigeon, which died out in 1914.
Britain is among the leaders in using this as a research tool, but there is a risk we will fall behind in applications. Gene-editing in immunotherapy, to tackle cancer, is going to be expensive and individualized – just the sort of thing our NHS-dominated healthcare system is badly equipped to fund. As for gene editing in agriculture, the European Union has asked states not to make up their minds how to regulate it yet, till a slow-moving French court case is heard by the European Court of Justice, perhaps next year.
This is madness. The Americans have decided already that gene-edited crops, because they do not contain whole genes imported across the species barrier from other species, cannot be classified as “genetically modified” and so should be treated like any other product of plant breeding – they’re safer, because you know precisely what’s been changed. That’s given a green light to researchers to press ahead and produce crops that are healthier, better for the environment and more productive.
Meanwhile, Brussels has officially decided to be indecisive. Which actually gives Britain an opportunity. The commission’s indecision is a request, not an instruction. Without breaching our promise to be good EU citizens till the end, we can ignore it, press ahead with sensible rules and attract the best gene-editing talent here.
Viscount Ridley is a Conservative peer in the House of Lords.
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