International experts take a closer look at the ethics of gene drive technology

McMaster’s Institute on Ethics & Policy for Innovation (IEPI) has partnered with the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health’s GeneConvene Global Collaborative to co-host a virtual discussion series on ethical issues surrounding gene drive research – a controversial technology with the potential to address some of the world’s most serious health challenges.


The discussions, collectively called “Unsettled Ethical Issues in Gene Drive Research,” will be held on the second Tuesday of every month from July to November and will feature experts from institutions including Harvard University, the World Health Organization, the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, Emory University and McMaster.


Sessions will include moderated discussions on questions around justice and equity, the responsibilities of various stakeholders, the ethical principles that govern gene drive research, and whether there are exceptional ethical issues related to gene drive technology.


At its most basic, gene drive technology involves changing the genetic code of an organism to manipulate what traits are passed on – or not – to future generations. This kind of genetic engineering holds particular promise for managing or eradicating vector-borne illnesses: infections like Lyme disease, dengue fever and malaria, that are passed to humans and other animals from blood-feeding insects like ticks, fleas and mosquitoes.


But while humans have been altering their environment deliberately for millennia – think selective breeding for crops or livestock – this level of intervention, including the potential eradication of entire populations of organisms, comes with a host of ethical questions.


Claudia Emerson, the director of IEPI, a professor of philosophy in McMaster’s Faculty of Humanities and the moderator for the November 9 discussion, pointed out in a recent article on the Brighter World website that there are many factors to consider when planning to use gene drive technology.


“Should we be eliminating species? What happens when you deploy those gene drives – will there be off-target effects? Will it have an impact on other ecosystems? If you remove a mosquito population, will another organism potentially become another vector for disease? These are broad risks – so you really have to look at best practices in the field in all dimensions: science, technology, regulation and ethics.”


Emerson and fellow IEPI researchers Travis Ramsay and Aaron Roberts, in partnership with the UN’s Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases and the GeneConvene Global Collaborative, recently played a key role in helping to develop updated international guidelines from the World Health Organization for using genetically modified mosquitoes.


Roberts also played a large role in organizing the series, and will be appearing at the October discussion as a panelist.


“Unsettled Issues in Gene Drive Research” will begin with a panel discussion on Tuesday, July 13 at 10 a.m. ET, addressing the question, “Is there a moral difference between the natural and the synthetic.” It will feature IEPI researcher Matthew Grellette as a panelist. Register on the event website, or watch recorded sessions on the GeneConvene YouTube channel.


Claudia Emerson is part of Canada’s Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats, an international network launched at McMaster with scientists, clinical health and medical specialists, engineers, social scientists and other experts working collaboratively to prevent future pandemics and mitigate global health threats.