Recent advances in gene editing technologies have made it possible for scientists to modify the genomes of organisms more rapidly, efficiently and cost effectively. Ultimately, the way that animals are used in research, agriculture, and for the production of biomedical and pharma products, among other areas, will be greatly impacted. As the advances in gene editing technology are moving quickly, concerns are mounting that researchers have not yet fully grasped its potential—or its potential consequences.
Last week, NAVS participated in a workshop entitled “Gene Editing to Modify Animal Genomes for Research: Scientific and Ethical Considerations,” which was sponsored by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR). The purpose of the workshop was to “examine scientific, policy and ethical challenges from the widespread use of gene editing technologies affecting the use of animals in scientific research.”
Many speakers discussed the impact that advances in gene editing technologies will have on the implementation of the 3 R’s–reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use in science. Most of the speakers stated that the use of animals in science will increase as a result of gene editing, at least initially, and that preference in animal species may shift toward larger animal models.
While some audience members pointed out that advances in gene editing tools should be better explored in cell lines and more complex in vitro models, such as organs-on-chips, before going into animals, it was clear that the panelists at the meeting did not believe that such in vitro tools would serve as replacements for animal models.
NAVS took the opportunity to express our concern about the impact that these technologies will have on animal use and asked whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture was planning to provide more transparency about use of genetically-altered animals by collecting and reporting information on the numbers and species of animals that are genetically altered in their annual reports. Without collection of this basic information, it will be impossible to accurately assess the impact of this technology on animal use.
We also raised concerns about who will oversee this kind of research, particularly when it was suggested that oversight belongs at the level of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). We, and others, were quick to point out potential concerns with this, as in-house research protocols have a 98% approval rate, and over 80% of IACUC members are animal researchers, and may therefore be subject to approval bias. The panel was asked for specific recommendations on how to better prepare IACUCs about protocols involving gene editing, as many felt their IACUCs were not in a position to be able to make these decisions. It was suggested that more regional or centralized IACUCs be formed just to handle gene editing-type questions and that IACUC membership should be altered to give more opportunity for the public to express their concerns. Some felt that IACUCs will need to be more transparent, potentially letting the public sit in on meeting discussing protocols and that a process should be set up which allows people to appeal IACUC decisions.
We will continue to keep you informed about the impact of this technology on animal use and how it will be regulated as more information becomes available.
What are your thoughts on the impact of gene editing technologies on animal use in research? Please send any questions or comments you may have on this week’s Science First to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.
-Dr. Pam Osenkowski, Director of Science Programs
ILAR Roundtable: Gene Editing to Modify Animal Genomes for Research – Scientific and Ethical Considerations
December 7-8, 2015
This public workshop will examine scientific, policy and ethical challenges from the widespread use of gene editing technologies affecting the use of animals in scientific research. Invited speakers will address the applications of these technologies in various animal species; regulatory and other policy issues in the U.S. and international contexts; and broad ethical and welfare issues stemming from using gene editing in animals.
For more information see: ILAR Roundtable