This guest editorial was written by Dr. Guy Reeves of the Max-Planck institute in Plön, Germany.
Field trials of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes have already progressed to free releases in populated areas in a number of countries. A recent publication in PLoS NTD provides a critical summary of the events leading up to these trials and is aimed at non-specialist readers. While advocating the value of field testing transgenic techniques for suppressing disease vector populations, it highlights a number of troubling scientific precedents.
In a recent issue of the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases we published an article entitled Scientific standards and the regulation of genetically modified insects .
Our motivations for writing this article were:
1) To provide a readable background document to inform non-specialists who may be unaware of recent developments in the use of genetically modified insects in the environment.
2) To provide some clarity on a limited number of scientific issues which have been unnecessarily obscured.
The article was intended to provide enough context and substantiated information that readers can make up their own minds on a variety of strategic issues relating to the use of genetically modified insects to control disease vectors (or agricultural pests). Much of the interest generated by our article in the general media focuses on the extent to which it is acceptable or strategically advisable to limit public access to safety data of legitimate concern on the basis of commercial secrecy rights.
While the scientific article is not intended to be polemical there is a clear sub-text that a rather limited model of public engagement is being consistently applied around the world (we are not the first to express concern about this happening, e.g. [2,3]). This is despite the fact that for over a decade almost every publication on this subject explicitly highlighted the importance of high quality community engagement in the testing of this potentially controversial technology. While it is not explicitly discussed in the article these apparently incompatible observations can usefully be reconciled by recognizing that scientists may legitimately hold two distinct views of what quality public engagement entails with respects to applied uses of transgenic insects [4,5].
I. The first engagement approach seeks to involve the public, stakeholders and local inhabitants of release areas in the development of strategies to maximize the public good of trials whilst respecting commonly held values.
II. The alternative approach by contrast implicitly assumes a specific outcome is desirable—one favored by particular interests and perspectives (for instance, individual businesses, agencies, or pressure groups). This can lead to a focus on avoiding controversy, rather than to giving the public any actual role in decisions about research trajectories.
It is noteworthy that the first strategy necessarily requires an extensive and transparent effort to accurately inform the public and scientists , while the second approach does not.
It is now possible to look back over the last few years and frame questions about the strategic direction this technology is heading in - we hope this will prove to be a positive and timely contribution of our article.
While the initial field trials involve the use of transgenic constructs to render Aedes aegypti partially sterile for dengue control, similar techniques could be used in controlling malaria, if they can be shown to be safe and effective. The earlier members of the malaria research community become strategically and experimentally involved the more likely it is that this technology will have a useful future . Indeed the last sentence of our article states:
‘While it may appear naïve to argue for pre-release access to accurate scientific information and a high quality multi-disciplinary approach, it is in our opinion even more naïve to expect that the development of GM insect technologies will progress far in its absence.’
The article already has the 3rd fastest monthly download rate in the history of the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Disease. We choose to attribute this not to any sensationalisation of the topic, but to the readability of the article and we hope it will inspire new individuals to become involved in this field- regardless of whether or not they share the views of its authors (which are themselves far from uniform).
Our article was simultaneously published along with two expert commentaries and an editorial.
To a significant extent all these companion articles choose to focus on the difficult position national regulators find themselves in. I would observe that if permit applicants and their collaborators did not assert broad commercial secrecy rights (often to information already in the public domain) then regulators would have nothing to impede them in advertising the scientific quality of their decisions (ideally prior to releases occurring).
1. Reeves RG, Denton JA, Santucci F, Bryk J, Reed FA (2012) Scientific Standards and the Regulation of Genetically Modified Insects. Regulation 6. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0001502
2. Knols BGJ, Hood-Nowotny RC, Bossin H, Franz G, Robinson A, et al. (2006) GM sterile mosquitoes — a cautionary note. Nature biotechnology 24: 1067–1068.
3. Knols BGJ, Bossin HC, Mukabana WR, Robinson AS (2007) Transgenic mosquitoes and the fight against malaria: managing technology push in a turbulent GMO world. The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene 77: 232.
4. Marris C, Rose N (2010) Open engagement: exploring public participation in the biosciences. PLoS biology 8: e1000549. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000549
5. Stirling A (2012) Opening Up the Politics of Knowledge and Power in Bioscience. PLoS Biology 10: e1001233. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001233
6. Lavery JV, Tinadana PO, Scott TW, Harrington LC, Ramsey JM, et al. (2010) Towards a framework for community engagement in global health research. Trends in parasitology 26: 279-83. doi:10.1016/j.pt.2010.02.009
7. Boëte C (2011) Scientists and public involvement: a consultation on the relation between malaria, vector control and transgenic mosquitoes. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 105: 704-10. doi:10.1016/j.trstmh.2011.08.006