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Hastings Center News

Gregory Kaebnick on Responsible Use of Gene Drives

A National Academy of Sciences committee released a major report on June 8 on the responsible use of gene drives, a rapidly developing field of research that holds promise for addressing persistent problems, such as eradicating Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases and conserving endangered species, but that also risks harming entire ecosystems. Gregory Kaebnick, a Hastings Center research scholar, was a member of the committee.

Gene drives are technologies that make genetic changes to an organism in a way that’s designed to spread the changes to all of the organism’s offspring, and eventually throughout the organism’s entire population. For example, researchers could try to develop a gene drive to prevent a species of mosquito from carrying Zika or malaria. Researchers might also be able to eliminate a species of mosquito altogether.

Because of the many unknowns about the impact of gene drives, the report does not support releasing gene-drive modified organisms into the environment at this time, but it does endorse research on gene drives. The report emphasizes the importance of human values in addressing questions about the potential benefits and harms of gene drive-modified organisms for people, the potential impact on the environment, and the use of gene drives and who will make decisions about them.

“The report is open-minded about the good that gene drives might achieve, but it also takes a broad view of the kinds of concerns that gene drives raise,” said Kaebnick.  “We’ve never dealt with a technology that can change the natural world in quite the way gene drives would be designed to do. We should go forward with the technology only if we can do so safely and acceptably.” Kaebnick is a principal investigator of a Hastings Center project on the role of values in impact assessment and author of Humans in Nature: The World as We Find It and The World as We Create It.