Science Spain , Salamanca, Tuesday, June 07 of 2016, 09:33

Gene editing is a new challenge for ethics and the law

'BIO.IBEROAMÉRICA 2016' addresses the legal and ethical challenges posed by new genetic engineering techniques

JPA/DICYT Biotechnology not only brings together various scientific matters, but has repercussions in all areas of human knowledge, as has been demonstrated today during BIO.IBEROAMÉRICA 2016. Integrating Continents'. Carlos María Romeo Casabona, director of the Chair University BBVA-Provincial Government of Vizcaya in Law and Human Genome at the Universities of Deusto and the Basque Country Foundation, examined an issue of topical, editing genes from the point of view of ethics and law.

Recently, the technique known as CRISPR has enabled genome editing. The controversy comes at the possibility that could interfere with the genetic endowment of a living, especially in the case of humans being. "Keep in mind that if the change is made in the germline, the change will not affect a single individual, but perpetuated over generations," said the expert, "is to change the human species and, if done for therapeutic purposes, most of us may agree, but could also serve to perfect features and this is a very different matter. "
Hence the debate arises: to what extent should be allowed? In general, a "favorable opinion, but with reservations" prevails. Different schools give a variety of responses, some are strongly opposed, others believe they should be allowed in some cases and there is even who argues that improving the human species is "a moral obligation".

Researchers say the new technique is simple and safe, but "the genome is not a puzzle, scientists know that if they remove a piece and put another, there may be interference in the whole genome", so the issue of security it is also on the table.

According to Carlos Romeo, resolving this issue is not an urgent problem, since today assisted reproduction techniques offer many possibilities to have children free of diseases. Moreover, while the ethical issues are resolved, "we must take the references that we already have,". For example, when in the 90s emerged the possibility of cloning living organisms, this kind of questions were brand new, but now the debate about editing the genome has many points in common to what we have mentioned, so we can built on our previous thoughts.

Patenting genes

Another controversial aspect of the issue is how to protect some biotechnical developments. "Findings have little legal protection. If someone discovers a star, thats not patentable, but if someone invent something, it is. The problem is that gene editing is situated on the border between a discovery and an invention, "he says. The possibility of patenting CRISPR technique itself has raised legal debates in the United States. Again, there are precedents, such as the attempt to patent genes of breast cancer for diagnostic purposes. However, genetic engineering is "something different, does not exist in nature, it is something new and may have the characteristics of an invention," said Romeo, who is a member of the Bioethics Committee of Spain.

Health, a star theme in the Conference

Moreover,BIO.IBEROAMÉRICA 2016 began today with the plenary lecture of Mark Sliwkowski, Genentech scientist who has developed some of the most important monoclonal antibodies today, approved for treatment of breast cancer HER2-positive. This researcher has more than 30 patents and over 100 publications.

Nowadays antibodies are produced in a chromatography platform which is a very expensive process. The design of a more economical process would be essential to move towards a more universal access to medicine. Today, Barros is working on a European project together with two Spanish companies, and has other collaborations with scientists from Mexico and Chile.

Plants as "bio-factories"

Improvements in agriculture is another major topics covered in BIO.IBEROAMÉRICA 2016. "At first, the main objective of biotechnology is to increase the performance of the field and that means having plants with less disease and higher productivity, but we are already working on a second generation of applications that would be plants and animals with specific properties, for example, corn with higher amounts of amino acids, "said Lourdes Cabral, a researcher at EMBRAPA, a Brazilian institution dedicated to agricultural sciences.

A third step is that plants behave as "bio-factories" that produce specific substances with energetic or pharmaceutical applications. "If we think of the consumer, living organisms are working for us, producing new things." The enormous Brazilian biodiversity is essential to address this type of research, since sometimes these biotechnological improvements are based on a certain plant incorporating features of another species. As a result, "soybeans can be planted in places where it was not previously possible" and Brazil has become a leading exporter of this product.

In the same line, the spanish researcher Roberto Solano was in charge of another plenary lecture. He is researcher at the National Center of Biotechnology in Madrid, one of the most cited in the field of agricultural sciences in recent years. His field of work are jasmonates, hormones of plants that help them to protect themselves from various hazards such as fungi and insects and have numerous biotechnological applications.