Project on Gene Editing (OECD BNCT)

Gene editing techniques are a major advance that could have major benefits across the domains of human health, sustainability and the economy that go beyond incremental advances of past biotechnologies. In the context of agriculture and aquaculture, the potential benefits include opportunities for improved efficiency, greater productivity, broader varietal repertoires. In human medicine, gene editing technologies might lead to new cures and therapies for genetic diseases, controls for vector-borne diseases, and improved vaccines. Environmental applications of gene editing technologies could enable novel approaches to conservation, bioremediation, the control of invasive species, and the protection of biodiversity. 

The gene editing project of the OECD Working Party on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Converging Technologies (BNCT) aims to produce a forum conducive to evidence-based discussion aross countries on the many issues of shared concern. The initiative aims to help guide policy at the national and international levels and promote -- where appropriate -- cooperative governance approaches.

The Policy Issues

There are significant policy challenges at the national and international level related to the governance of gene editing. Some of these issues do not differ significantly from those arising from older genetic modification techniques/technologies.

General points about governance include the need to earn and foster public trust in regulatory institutions, to cure high regulatory uncertainty, and to set regulatory measures at a reasonable level.

Much of the public discourse surrounding gene editing has focused on its potential promise for addressing complex and interrelated societal challenges. Nevertheless, like with many emerging and disruptive technologies before it, some scepticism exists about whether gene editing technologies will live up to their potential and can be practically deployed to address societal and industrial challenges. While gene editing is already being deployed in clinical trials and commercial applications, it remains to be seen whether it is simply the latest gadget in the biotechnology toolbox, a revolutionary disruptor of fundamental research and development, or something else altogether.

From time to time scientific breakthroughs offer great promise, which are expounded upon and amplified in the media, but then may which fail to deliver on their promise. Gene editing seems set to be different and appears to truly represent a significant leap in the capability of mankind. However, to deliver on its promise, it is important to understand the context of gene editing and what is required to enable the responsible development of the technology.

The Technology

In general, gene editing refers to a set of novel techniques for manipulating the genome that can achieve much greater precision than pre-existing forms of genetic engineering. The best known and most consequential of these techniques is the so-called CRISPR-Cas9. Gene editing technologies are to have major implications for innovation across biomedicine, agriculture, and industrial biotechnology because genetic manipulation is now more exact, less expensive, and easier. Gene editing tools are already regarded as extremely valuable contributions to biotechnology and molecular biology.

Gene editing techniques have been around for a long time. It is the advent of CRISPR/Cas9, however, that has propelled the field forward, reducing costs and making techniques easier and more available. The effect is a homologous editing of an organism’s genome that can target either coding or non-coding regions to achieve a range of results. The precision and speed of gene editing enables a wide range of beneficial applications – including treating genetic diseases, global food security and environmental remediation.

Latest News: Gene Editing

Now Available: OECD STI Working Paper on Gene Editing

The OECD Working Party on Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Converging Technologies (BNCT) just published a report entitled “Gene editing in an international context: Scientific, economic and social issues across sectors” (OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers, 2018/04).

The publication represents a report from the international expert workshop, held on 29-30 September 2016 in Ottawa, Canada.

Shukla-Jones, A., S. Friedrichs and D. Winickoff (2018), "Gene editing in an international context: Scientific, economic and social issues across sectors", OECD Science,…


Additional Material

BNCT Delegates can access additional material from the OECD BNCT meeting on "Gene editing in an international context: scientific, economic and social issues across sectors”, held on 29-30 September 2016 in Ottawa, Canada.

Follow this link to download ANNEX C: Summary of Breakout Discussion Outcomes.