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Biotechnology work by the EMBO Science Policy Programme

 

14 March 2016 – There are many concerns that arise from biotechnology applications. Some of them are old, like the ethical issues related to modifying the human germ-line or the potential environmental impact of introducing new plant varieties. But the continuous advances in scientific knowledge and the ever more refined technologies available have opened new possibilities for a growing number of scientists to develop new products with more ease. EMBO, among other organizations, is monitoring these developments, and aims at ensuring that science is carried out for the benefit of society.

 

As an example of EMBO’s interest in developments in biotechnology, the Science Policy programme organized in December 2014 an exploratory workshop, supported by the European Science Foundation, on The use of non-anonymized human genome sequence in research: Science and policy. The interdisciplinary group of participants evaluated current knowledge and revealed scientific and governance gaps in the use of human genome data intentionally made identifiable for research purposes. Main questions were: 1) How much phenotypic and medical information do researchers need in order to extract useful data from genomes? 2) What does the consent process look like for making genome sequence publicly available? 3) How much interpretation of data do researchers owe to research participants? 4) How would “misuse” of genetic information be identified and punished? Download workshop report

 

Recent activities:

 

Emerging Biotechnologies: Hype, Hope and Hard Reality

16th EMBO | EMBL Science and Society conference

 

The conference Emerging Biotechnologies: Hype, Hope and Hard Reality focussed on the social impact of innovative biotechnologies, particularly in the fields of human health and the environment. An interdisciplinary and international group of 17 speakers and about 200 participants from Europe and beyond gathered for two days in the auditorium of the Advanced Training Centre in Heidelberg last November. The discussion topics included the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in realising the potential economic and societal benefits of these technologies; issues such as governance, ownership, and innovation were also discussed.

 

Modern medical biotechnology is the most widely applied area of biotechnology and a number of talks were dedicated to it. The speakers on this topic illustrated the potential benefits of these applications for patients as compared to existing therapies, and highlighted their limitations and the challenges of bringing them to the market. The range of applications presented was very broad, ranging from CRISPR-Cas9 (Dirk Heckl), to stem cell and gene therapy (Luigi Naldini), tissue engineering (Paolo de Coppi), and genetic modification of mosquitoes to fight dengue fever (Simon Warner).

 

Another session, dedicated to biotechnologies and the environment, included talks on synthetic biology(Sven Panke), bioremediation (Victor de Lorenzo), the production of plant natural products and new-to-nature chemicals (Anne Osbourn), and the use of genetic markers to monitor and possibly restore animal species (Carsten Nowak).

 

Some highlights from the conference

The recently developed CRISPR-Cas9 technology for gene editing was a focus of the conference. Dirk Heckl from the Hannover Medical School in Germany presented and discussed the many potential applications of what has been defined as the game changer in genome editing. Due to its simplicity, efficiency and low cost, the CRISPR-Cas9 system can be used in all fields of biomedicine, from basic research to clinical applications. Moreover, in agriculture, CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to modify crops without combining DNA from different species, potentially putting an end to public concerns that mixing DNA of different species will have undesirable consequences.

Along with the enthusiasm about its potential, CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing has also raised concerns both inside and outside the scientific community. These concerns relate in particular to its potential use in editing the human germ-line, resulting in changes being passed on to future generations. More research is needed to prove that the technology is safe and that genome edits occur in the desired position. Moreover, the possible application of CRISPR-Cas9 to germ-line editing has revived international ethical and policy discussions about whether research involving the human germ-line should be allowed at all, and about the roles and responsibilities not only of scientists, but of many other social groups, in taking decisions on the use of this technology.

 

Luigi Naldini, Director of the San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy in Milan, presented his work which uses a novel combination of old technologies, stem cell therapy and gene therapy: the development and application of HIV-based vectors to deliver blood stem cell gene therapies. Gene-transfer efficacy and safety have long been the major problems for gene therapy, but Naldini’s team has developed new techniques that seem to have overcome these problems and recently produced results in two clinical trials for the treatment of rare diseases in children, raising hopes and expectations of cures for devastating genetic diseases. In this area there is often a tension between patients, their families, scientists and doctors, who are eager to test research advances in the clinic as soon as possible to treat some otherwise lethal diseases, and regulators, who, in order to protect patients, take a cautious approach and often impose controls that are thought to delay progress.

 

In the session about biotechnologies and the environment, Anne Osbourn, project leader at the John Innes Centre in the UK, talked about the fantastic contribution of plants to important pharmaceutical and industrial products. Biotechnology has opened many alternative routes in the production of plant products. A well-known example is artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug that is naturally produced by sweet wormwood. Using synthetic biology techniques, scientists have succeeded in producing synthetic artemisinin from yeast in much higher quantities and at lower prices than that derived from traditional cultivation.
Download talks and slides from the conference