How the UK precision breeding bill could unshackle gene editing

neil ward pacbio uk gene editing

The U.K. is considering lowering restrictions on gene-edited crops. PacBio’s Neil Ward explains how the changes could impact the gene editing landscape.

CRISPR gene editing technology has changed the game in the biotech industry by making it easier than ever before to make small changes to the genome. In addition to myriad healthcare applications, the tool could be used to produce new breeds of crops more efficiently than traditional breeding techniques.

Gene editing technology allows the insertion, deletion or switching of nucleotide base pairs — the building blocks of DNA — in small parts of the genome: a more targeted version of selective breeding or deliberately introducing mutations in crop strains with chemicals or radiation. In contrast, traditional genetically modified organisms (GMOs) contain whole genes from foreign organisms and couldn’t appear naturally. 

“There is a huge body of scientific evidence that modern genetic manipulation tools, whether that’s CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing or other methodologies, are frankly safer than the methodologies that have historically been used for the last hundred years,” said Neil Ward, vice president and general manager EMEA of the U.S. DNA sequencing player Pacific Biosciences (PacBio).

In a landmark ruling in 2018, the EU applied the same strict regulations to gene-edited organisms as it does to GMOs. While some groups approve of this classification, the regulations are widely seen in the biotech industry as unfit for purpose because it’s very hard to detect these organisms in imports, and the controls are likely holding back technology that could improve food security around the world.

“The EU has taken a conservative stance over a number of years on gene modification, gene editing and genetics in agriculture as a whole,” said Ward. “It’s been a very different path from what the North American regulatory bodies have taken.”

When it was part of the EU, the U.K. had to follow the same rules as the bloc. Now that the nation is out of the club, however, the U.K. government aims to make reforms. A bill called the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill entered the U.K. parliament earlier this year proposing that gene-edited organisms be treated with less regulatory scrutiny than traditional GMOs, allowing new foods to enter the market faster. The bill will be debated by members of parliament before moving ahead in the lawmaking process.

Neil Ward joined PacBio in mid-2021 to help the company expand its sequencing platforms to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Over his career of more than two decades, he has worked in life sciences heavyweights including Illumina, Agilent and Oxford Biomedica, in addition to big genomics initiatives including Genomics England’s 100,000 Genome Project and the Estonian Genome Project. Now he’s with PacBio, he’s following the progress of the current U.K. bill with a lot of interest.

“[PacBio has] a laboratory in London now that is able to collaborate with all sorts of researchers that are looking to use genomic technology,” said Ward. “If we want to put it bluntly, we believe that opening up of the regulatory landscape in the U.K. will allow for significant investment into other companies in the U.K. that will, at their core, have a need for additional genomic sequencing. So in many respects, that will be good for our business but also good for humanity.”

The U.K. has many institutions leading the way in genomics, biodiversity studies and genetic engineering, with examples including Kew Gardens, the John Innes Centre and the Roslin Institute, which is famous for having cloned Dolly the sheep in the 1990s. Ward sees the potential loosening of restrictions on gene-edited crops as a path to help these institutions expand with more funding, and hopefully bud off startups.

“We’ve got some way to go to catch up with the investments that have been made in North America, certainly in the private sector over recent years,” reflected Ward. 

If the U.K.’s precision breeding bill does become law, then we’d still need to wait some years before seeing any impact on society. While a lot of safety studies surrounding gene editing and agriculture have already been completed in the U.S., Ward sees the U.K. proceeding cautiously. 

“Even if there are approvals to move ahead from a government perspective, it’s going to be done in a way that brings the general public with it,” he commented. “We don’t suddenly want to be flooding the market with products that haven’t got appropriate safety track records.”

Furthermore, said Ward, new crop breeds will take a few years to develop, since researchers must identify which edits to make and then grow the plants to maturity. “While there may be significant investments over the next five years in growing that technology base and ecosystem, I think the actual time for a new product on the shelf of your favorite supermarket chain is probably in the 10-year timeframe, not the 10-month timeframe,” he noted.

Even with decreasing legal obstacles, there are still many challenges to the adoption of gene editing technology in agriculture. For example, gene editing players are attempting to overcome the “shotgun” approach of traditional breeding techniques, but it’s tough to know where to make edits unless you have a map of the genome in question. PacBio is using its genomics platform to refine the approach and speed up crop research.

“Once you have a map that is clear and precise, then you can start to use precise genetic editing tools to change and modify and understand how the genetics come into life,” said Ward.

Another challenge commonly issued by GMO opponents is that gene-edited crops can contain traces of off-target mutations in addition to leftover DNA from the gene editing machinery in the plant cells. The U.K. Food Standards Agency aims to set safety requirements regarding these changes during future regulatory processes, and sequencing could prove vital in this endeavor.

Then there are also broader issues to consider with the marketing of gene-edited crops, such as encouraging unsustainable farming practices and deepening inequalities in the food supply chain, with big companies holding more sway over farmers. According to Ward, society will need to find its way through these thorny issues and keep up with evolving technology.

The U.K. isn’t the only European body to reconsider its position on the classification of gene-edited crops. The European Commission launched an initiative last year to gauge public attitudes towards the use of gene editing in food production, and is now investigating whether the regulations should be changed to loosen restrictions on precision breeding. Ward suspects the EU will watch carefully what happens to the U.K.’s efforts to change its regulatory system for gene-edited crops.

“I would understand that the EU takes a more consultative, considered view as they try and get consensus across all different perspectives and opinions in the Union,” concluded Ward.

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