Gene Editing: Recent Developments and Scientific Status

This House of Lords Library Briefing has been prepared ahead of a debate due to take place on 30 January 2020 on the motion moved by Baroness Bakewell (Labour) “that this House takes note of recent developments in the field of gene editing and its status in scientific research around the world”.

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Gene editing is a technique that allows parts of a genome to be precisely replaced or removed from DNA. The technique is also known as genome editing. It is being developed in areas such as biomedical research, human therapies and agriculture. The genome editing market continues to grow as demand from both agriculture and healthcare sectors increases.

Currently there are several genome editing technologies available. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at locations in the genome. The most recent technology is known as CRISPR-Cas9. Genome editing is cited as having potential biological, medical and environmental benefits. Amongst other things, it has increased understanding of how specific genes are involved in areas such as disease. Recent developments in genome editing include progression in CRISPR-Cas9 technology and regulatory amendments in Europe following a 2018 European Court of Justice ruling.

The 100,000 Genome Project was established in 2012 to sequence 100,000 genomes from 85,000 NHS patients affected by a rare disease or cancer. In December 2018, the project ended when the 100,000th sequence was achieved. The project was delivered by Genomics England, a company which, at the time, was wholly owned and funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In November 2019, the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, confirmed his future ambitions to see all children receive whole genome sequencing at birth.

Advancement in genome editing has created discussions on the ethical, environmental and regulatory implications of this innovation. Genome editing in the UK is regulated through a combination of European and domestic legislation. However, regulatory provisions across the world remain varied. There have been recent calls from scientists and ethicists for a “global moratorium” on clinical uses of human germline editing, which creates genetic changes that can be inherited by a person’s descendants.

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