Emerging science and technologies
Emerging science and technologies, such as human genome editing and gene drive, could provide new solutions to health problems. But for people to benefit, they need to be supported by evidence and have appropriate oversight in place.
Innovations with the potential to improve health deserve detailed investigation.
As innovations are developed, there are often important scientific, social and ethical questions that need to be explored in an open, inclusive way.
We support emerging science and technologies if evidence from research justifies their use. Research is critical to generate the knowledge we need to make informed decisions and then to use new technologies rapidly and responsibly.
Our work in this area is currently focusing on human genome editing, gene drive and regulatory oversight.
What is genome editing?
Genome editing allows scientists to change gene sequences by adding, replacing or removing sections of DNA.
It’s an important research tool that can be used to increase our understanding of how genomes influence health.
Genome editing can impact us:
- directly, for example by preventing or treating serious disease
- indirectly, by making changes to our environment, for example by modifying insects that carry diseases such as malaria.
Our short animation explains what genome editing is, how it works and its possible implications.
Human genome editing
We recognise that human genome editing has the potential to prevent or treat serious genetic diseases. This could be by editing sperm or eggs, known as germ cells, or any other, non-reproductive cells in the body, known as somatic cells.
We're supporting a number of activities that explore human genome editing, and are actively participating in discussions in the UK, Europe and globally.
- read our initial joint statement on genome editing in human cells [PDF 87KB]
- read a report by the Progress Educational Trust and Genetic Alliance on understanding genome editing, which we supported
- find out more about the Genome Editing Public Engagement Synergy project, which we support.
New tools are urgently needed to reduce and control vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue and zika.
Gene drive may offer a way to reduce the number of specific species, such as mosquitoes, which spread these diseases, or remove their ability to transmit disease to humans or animals.
How gene drive works
Gene drive is a genetic technology that can permanently change the traits of a species. It works by altering the likelihood of offspring inheriting a specific gene from their parents.
Normally genes have a 50% chance of being inherited: gene drive technology could increase this to nearly 99%. This means that over several generations, a selected trait could become increasingly common in a specific species.
Gene drive only works in species that reproduce sexually, and it works best in species which have a short lifespan and produce many offspring.
There are still many scientific, social and ethical questions about gene drive. We want to have an open dialogue around the challenges, to help guide responsible research.
We’ve joined other global funders in committing to a set of guiding principles for the responsible conduct of gene drive research.
We’re now collaborating with the research community to define how these can work in practice.
- read summaries of our meetings in March 2017 [PDF 486KB], December 2017 [PDF 358KB] and September 2018 [PDF 167KB].
- see the statement we published in Science
- learn how other sponsors and research organisations can sign up
- read the open letter we've signed, supporting continued research on gene drive.
We also support the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research which provides information about gene drive and its potential uses.
Oversight of emerging science and technologies
Emerging science and technologies can improve our lives in many ways, but also bring risks. Effective regulatory oversight is needed to make sure these technologies reach their full potential quickly and safely, and with the public's trust.
Our report, A blueprint for dynamic oversight, sets out how the UK can become a world leader in this area. Our recommendations draw on what we learned from experts through our consultation and discussions, a review of the available literature, and examples of regulatory oversight in practice.