June 7, 2016

Statement on the National Academy of Sciences Report on Gene Drives in Non-Human Organisms

I commend the National Academy of Sciences Committee for a thoughtful and comprehensive review of the unprecedented potential and challenge of gene drive technologies. The report, Gene Drive Research in Non-Human Organisms: Recommendations for Responsible Conduct, grapples with the many scientific, ethical, and policy questions that are raised by the unique ability of gene drives to potentially alter our environment. 

This approach to potential irreversible modification of the genome of an entire species is breathtaking – and seems to violate all of the standard rules of inheritance.  But there are already proofs of principle to show that it is possible, using the powerful CRISPR/cas approach, to alter the inheritance of a species in just a few generations.  There is enormous potential to reduce transmission of human diseases like malaria, Dengue, or Zika, by altering the mosquito genome – but there are also significant concerns about ecological consequences that may or may not be entirely predictable.

The overarching NAS Committee recommendation to support basic and applied research into gene drives, but hold off on release of gene drive modified organisms into the environment, seems to strike the right balance, given both the exciting potential of this technology and the uncertainty about its ecological impact. 

As stated in the report, it will be crucial for funders of gene drive research to coordinate and collaborate to enhance responsible development of this technology. NIH is already engaged in such conversations with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  

We strongly support the Committee's view that there needs to be stakeholder engagement regarding decision making about gene drives.  That can’t be an afterthought — it will require effort, attention, resources, and planning.

NIH clearly has a role in supporting the research to help assess the benefits and risks of gene drives in their application to prevent disease and improve human health.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health