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Gene Editing: Agriculture and Medicine

Volume 782: debated on Monday 27 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to encourage gene editing in agriculture and medicine.

My Lords, the UK is a world leader in the understanding of genetics, which is already leading to significant advances in medicine and agriculture. Gene editing has the potential to accelerate progress in both areas, saving lives and improving quality of life. The Government continue to support the assessment, refinement and use of genetic editing techniques.

I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware of widespread concern that, although we are pioneering and leading this essential work using CRISPR and TALEN to edit genes so as to help in both agriculture and medicine, we are falling behind in the race to apply this technology because the use of gene editing in cell therapy for cancer and in producing better crop plants requires and could be encouraged by better regulation? I declare my interests as listed in the register.

My noble friend is a leading advocate of this technology and is correct that getting the regulation right is absolutely important. It is currently regulated at the EU level, and there is debate on and an inquiry by the European Court of Justice into current exemptions for gene editing. We support the current exemptions, although others have challenged them. But it is also important to recognise that any discussion about gene editing, whether in agriculture or especially in a human health setting, involves big ethical questions and it is only right that we tread carefully as we move ahead.

My Lords, given the potential of gene editing of non-reproductive cells for treating HIV, sickle cell, haemophilia and, as the noble Viscount said, cancer, what plans do the Government have to ensure continued research in this important and valuable area after Brexit?

The noble Baroness is quite right to talk about the important therapeutic benefits that can come. I do not think this has anything to do with Brexit, other than the fact that the UK has been and continues to be a leader in the world of genomic sequencing, which of course enables us to identify the genetic issues that lead to some of the diseases and illnesses she has described. Within our regulatory framework, it is possible to use gene editing for therapeutic reasons but in ways that do not impact on inheritability, which is of course ethically an incredibly difficult question.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government have no plans to extend gene editing to germ cells, as was suggested in the Times only three weeks ago, with the idea that we could wipe out genetic disease using gene editing? This seems an extremely dangerous idea, given that there are epigenetic and other issues with gene editing, which may not be quite as precise and effective as is sometimes claimed.

The noble Lord is quite right to make that point. So-called germline gene editing, which creates the opportunity to pass on changes to later generations, is highly controversial. It is illegal in this country and there are no plans to change that position.

My Lords, I would like to take the discussion about regulation further. The question that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, just asked emphasises that we need a regulation in place now that is balanced, so that we can allow the researchers to progress further, including if necessary to demonstrate why germline gene editing may be necessary but should not be allowed. We lead the world in immune gene editing, as shown in the example of Layla, a one year-old girl who was treated for acute megaloblastic leukaemia, which was the first such case in the world. Does the Minister think it right to ask the appropriate departments in those agencies to produce something now on the regulation of gene editing that would be appropriate for Parliament to discuss?

My noble friend is right to highlight the potential of gene editing by referring to that life-saving treatment of a girl with leukaemia. We have a world-leading regulatory climate and there are strict rules governing research in this area: for example, research involving the use of embryos is allowed up until 14 days but not beyond. We should certainly carry on with that research—indeed, we have a more permissive regulatory environment than in much of the world. As my noble friend rightly points out, we need to do that with the purpose of respecting life and of course reducing harm, driven by the desire to do so.

My Lords, HIV has been mentioned. The Minister will know that the results from the gene-editing clinical trial for people who are HIV positive have shown promise, particularly regarding the use of zinc fingers, which can find specific sites in DNA that can then be edited. Research is in its very early stages but has shown the potential to increase resistance to the virus, with the ultimate goal of weaning some people off antiretroviral drugs. What are the Government doing to support and take forward this important research?

As we have discussed, there is huge potential regarding illnesses such as HIV. Clinical trials of gene therapies involving gene editing are still at an early stage, and are receiving support from the National Institute for Health Research. Any applications that go beyond the experimental and research stage would inevitably have to go through the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency regarding safety and clinical potential. So the right system exists, investment is taking place at the early stage of research and before anything is done to any scale, it must be subject to the proper discussion and scrutiny.

My Lords, as the Minister said, we have an enormously strong agriculture and genetic technology science base in this country. While this is not a magic bullet for food production, it could be a very important weapon in our armoury for meeting the world population’s future food needs. Given that, will he undertake that centres like the John Innes Centre in Norwich will continue to receive government support to develop genetic technology in agriculture, within a strong and ethical regulatory framework?

The noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not stray too far outside my brief and into agriculture, except to say that the research councils are putting a huge amount of investment into the kind of research she is describing, both for agriculture and for human health, and that will continue.