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Will Africa embrace CRISPR gene editing and the next phase of the biotech revolution?

Scientists around the world are increasingly turning to the promise of CRISPR gene editing to tackle any number of problems facing humanity.

These efforts may have started in the US, Europe and Asia, but they have since spread to African nations. South African scientists are exploring the technology’s use in human health, while Ugandan researchers are focused on plant breeding efforts, particularly with cassava in a bid to overcome the deadly Cassava Brown Streak Virus.

As in other nations, these efforts are accompanied by debates among politicians and regulators over how to the regulate the research and any products that might be developed for the market.

Regulatory dilemma

The use of CRISPR-Cas9 editing in humans has drawn considerable interest since a Chinese research group, led by Junjiu Huang at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, used it to eliminate the human globulin gene from the germline of a non-viable human embryo. The promise of using human gene editing to cure diseases and other health problems has sparked research efforts around the world.

Not surprisingly, those efforts have raised ethical concerns, particularly when the research goes beyond somatic changes – those that cannot be passed along to offspring.

Joanne van Harmelen, a South African patent attorney, examined the nation’s handling of this issue in a May 2017 article:

The biggest, but not the only, concerns over the use of this technology as a therapy are the possible off-target mutations that might arise during the use of the editing method, which would then be passed on to the patient’s progeny.

These issues are particularly important in cases of germline editing, in which the modified traits can be transferred to offspring and passed on to subsequent generations. These edits also raise legal issues, according to van Harmelen:

The National Health Act prohibits the manipulation of genetic material of human gametes, zygotes or embryos and activities such as nuclear transfer or embryo splitting for the purpose of the reproductive cloning of a human being. The minister of health may permit research on stem cells and zygotes which are younger than 14 days old, on a written application for research purposes, so long as the applicant undertakes to document the research and the donor’s prior written consent is obtained.

There is certainly debate among the scientific community over such editing, with some scientists calling for a moratorium on human gene editing and others offering a cautious approval in some instances. Some argue that we should not limit ourselves when we have the potential to cure some of the diseases that plague us.

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Legal framework in African nations

In an article published by Cletus Tandoh Andoh, from the Philosophy Department at the  University of Yaounde, in the International Journal of Health Economics and Policy, he states that the use of Crisp-Cas9 technology for germline modification of human embryos is creating challenges for existing legal frameworks and for responsible use in the world including Africa.

He argues that genome editing and the technology are not easily accommodated by current laws within individual jurisdictions nor under wide regulatory instruments and under international law.

He notes that today, many countries in the Western world are addressing the ethical challenges and dilemmas in through regulation, guidelines and national laws. But many African nations need to do more, he said.

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Andoh argues that genome editing is plagued by poor regulation, laws, policies and guidelines for scientific and ethical research, as well as the absence of safeguards to protect the dignity and rights of vulnerable populations. From his paper:

The absence of robust oversight and ethical control mechanisms to prevent technologies from being misused is a serious challenge for Africans to develop regulatory safeguards. There is still a huge lack of study to establish evidence if gene editing technologies would be used to foster the eugenic agenda of the gene rich of the West over the gene poor of Africa, or promote the common good. Work further identifies the need for African governments to formulate new guidelines for genome editing technologies and build appropriate regulatory structures to identify, anticipate and respond to public concerns on embryo gene editing for reproduction.

While gene editing opens up new avenues of promising research, he said the tools also give critics reason to worry about things like designer babies, invasive mutants and bio-weapons.

Without guidelines on the ethics of gene editing, scientists are now crossing a controversial legal and ethical line to tailor-make a human being.

To him the consensus holds that genetic-engineering tools may be applied, with appropriate care and safeguards, to treat an individual’s medical condition, but should not be used to modify gametes or early embryos and so manipulate the characteristics of future children.

GMacassava4
Dr John Odiopi at a GM cassava field trial and green house at the National Crop Resources Research Institute in Kampala, Uganda. Image credit: Lominda Afedraru

Plant breeding in Uganda

Dr. John Odipio is an agricultural scientist from the National Crop Resources Research Institute currently pursuing his PHD in gene editing while working at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St Louis, Mo. He sees in a gene editing a way to address any challenge in plant breeding.

His own research involves the study of cassava and the brown streak virus threatening farms in Uganda. He is using CRISPR to study the genes in cassava responsible for a variety of traits, including those that help resist pests and diseases.

In his preliminary study, he developed a process that he can later use in the laboratory in Uganda. This is because most scientists carry out research whose process can be executed in laboratories in Europe and USA. He explained:

I obtained a gene in cassava and edited it to cause change in the color of cassava leaves. For CRIPSR to work you need an enzyme called Cas9 and guided RNA. I obtained RNA within cassava to perform the bioinformatics process. Then I combined Cas9 with RNA to clone the edited cassava for growth. This is only possible after introducing it into a cell at the laboratory. From a single cell I have cloned cassava which is growing into a whole plant but has changed color to whitish. This way I am able to know that the editing process has worked.

Dr. Odipio contends that previous methods used in genetic modification to solve the challenge of CBSV were random, but gene editing is specific. He is now exploring way to use CRISPR to help the plants resist the disease or to help fight off the flies that help spread the virus from plant to plant.

He is optimistic that African countries will borrow from US policies to allow a friendlier regulatory environment for agriculture products.

Lominda Afedraru is a freelance science journalist in Uganda who specializes in agriculture, health, environment, climate change and marine science. Follow her on the Daily Monitor web site www.monitor.co.ug, Facebook or Twitter @lominda25

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