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View from Brussels: European court mulls restrictions on gene editing

The European Court of Justice is slow moving, conservative and has passed a number of confused decisions in the past few years, one of which nearly destroyed the European honey industry. Is it really the right body to legislate over an area changing at warp speed?

Up in the far north of Sweden experiments that may change the world have been taking place. At the University of Umeå, the Molecular Biology Department has pioneered the gene-editing technique that replaces the sledgehammer with a scalpel in genetic modification and which could lead to the creation of a new breed of super-humans, say its most ardent enthusiasts. Or at least organs for human beings grown in pigs, and there are many other developments going on too.

At which point the spoilsport European Court of Justice has entered the fray and may put a damper on research in Europe, even as this new technology forges ahead in the United States and China. Not that there aren’t any ethical issues. In a technology that is travelling at warp speed, laws clearly need to be looked over. The new gene-editing technique combined with stem cells could make it easier to get pigs to grow human kidneys, of which there is a great shortage for transplants. But the blend between human and pig also creates ethical dilemmas and we don’t know what will happen if human cells end up in the wrong place, for instance in the brain of the pig.

But the ECJ is slow moving, conservative and has passed a number of confused decisions in the past few years, one of which nearly destroyed the European honey market with its decision on banning honey over the issue of limited traces of pollen from GM maize. It is not clear whether the judges possess the relevant expertise. If it makes a blunt decision on this, it will arguably turn itself into a symbol of everything that is wrong about European bureaucracy.

The case to the ECJ was brought by French NGOs and trade unions, the usual suspects in holding back the tide of human progress. The French are backed by powerful German Ministry of the Environment. The British have been silent on the ECJ case, knowing that they will be out of the European Union before long, but the Swedish authorities are cautiously in favour of the technology. In the past Sweden was part of the Protestant Northern Bloc of nations which went “easy on the ethics” along with Britain and is usually regarded as science-friendly by the science community of Europe. But, bereft of its British ally, Sweden has said it would comply with the ECJ’s decision, due in 2018, as it really has no choice unless it opts for ‘Swexit’.

The new editing technology, known by the unwieldy sounding name of CRISPR-Cas9, has been described as a technique of precisely targeting the gene that is indistinguishable from natural mutation. It’s also been called a ‘cut and paste’ DNA technique, much like work moving around letters in a word processing program. Nobel prize-winner Craig Mello calls the discovery, made in 2012 at the Swedish University by French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier, a revolution. He’s been quoted as saying that “in the past when we want to change genes we had to use the sledgehammer to smash everything to pieces. Sure, we could change things but a lot was destroyed. Now we can move genes one at a time and it works very well. It’s incredible.”

Charpentier has been something of a star in the biotech community for several years now: winner of awards, profiled in magazines. Born outside Paris, she studied dance but realised she was too short too ever make it as a dancer. Described as “intense” and “totally dedicated”, she grew to love the endless Nordic winters in total darkness because she lost all sense of time and it allowed her to work harder.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and refers to the method by which bacteria defend themselves from repeated invasions by viruses by remembering their DNA so they can identify and destroy them the next time. What was previously thought to be junk DNA in the bacteria was actually a shield and sword which carefully sliced the invading viruses to pieces once they had been decoded. Charpentier and her colleagues at the laboratory – and collaborators at Berkeley in the United States – discovered a special enzyme, Cas 9, which makes the defensive task particularly effective.

What began as an effort to understand the Streptococcus pyogenes bacterium has now become a very effective method for changing genes. Instead of having to make particular proteins to find the right way into the genetic material you wanted to change, all you need is two strings of RNA and the cas 9 ‘knife’. It makes the process of the gene manipulation much easier. Instead of weeks of work, scientists now just need a couple of days to create their own ‘gene scalpels’ cutting and pasting genetic material. CRISPR-related activities in the molecular biology field are exploding, mostly outside Europe.

The ECJ could decide different things. The gene-editing technique could be applied to both plants and animals and separate decisions for both. If gene editing comes under Europe’s restrictive GMO laws it could limit research to all but those applications which involved the removal of the gene only and no replacement by new ones. Examples of such a limited technique were demonstrated at a lunch scientists held for journalists near Umeå last year, when reporters were treated to the first vegetables ever grown outdoors after modification by the new technology. The slightly blue-tinged broccoli tasted delicious with pasta and garlic, no genes having been added, but at least it fell under the radar of the European Union’s current interpretation of GM legislation. One wonders if will get even worse after 2018.

 More ambitious plans seem to be forging ahead outside Europe. In America, where the investment climate favours biotech, there is already a squabble about patent rights between two universities where the research was continued after Sweden and a third player, representing the US general public, who don’t want such a potentially world-changing discovery to be gate-keepered by the American private companies working with universities.

I can’t claim to know all the ins and outs of this developing story but my overall impression so far is a sad one: if by some incredible fortune Europe does discover something incredible, it still manages to drop the ball, notwithstanding European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker’s recent comment that the “Commission no longer regulates the flushing of toilets”.

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