ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There's a revolution going on in genetic engineering. In a report out today, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine say it's promising and potentially dangerous. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Scientists have known for decades how to genetically engineer bacteria, plants, insects and other creatures, but this new approach is like a turbocharged version of genetic engineering. It's called a gene drive because it can drive a gene through an entire species really fast. James Collins of Arizona State University co-chaired the National Academy's panel that took a look at gene drives.
JAMES COLLINS: It's powerful technology.
STEIN: So powerful that scientists think it could revolutionize genetics and let them do all sorts of things, like create mosquitoes that could wipe out malaria or Zika, engineer super crops that could feed the world, save endangered species.
COLLINS: It's very exciting science. It's just fascinating science.
STEIN: But the panel also concluded the gene drives could be very dangerous. They could run amok, messing up ecosystems, wiping out species, accidentally at unleashing epidemics. So Collins' panel concluded it's way too soon to even think about letting any gene drive organisms loose.
COLLINS: At this point, there is insufficient evidence available to support the release of gene drive modified organisms into the environment.
STEIN: But because gene drives do have the potential to do so much good, the panel is encouraging scientists to continue developing the technology in their labs. And a gene drive modified organism could even be tested outside their labs under very, very controlled circumstances, like in a sealed greenhouse or...
COLLINS: You could think about experiments that would happen on an isolated island.
STEIN: The report was welcomed by many scientists. Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine, has created gene drive mosquito he hopes could wipe out malaria.
ANTHONY JAMES: What we're really looking forward to is testing these things with really strict go, no-go decision points moving from one to another.
STEIN: But some experts say the National Academies isn't being nearly cautious enough. Kevin Esvelt is a leading gene drive researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
KEVIN ESVELT: The National Academies hit a lot of right notes in terms of advice on the ethics and the ecological safety. But do we really have the right to even build something in the laboratory when a mistake could affect the lives of people outside the lab, without telling the people who might be affected? And I would say that the answer is no, and they do not go that far.
STEIN: Others say the committee relies too much on scientists just doing the right thing. Jim Thomas is with the technology watchdog organization known as the ETC Group. He worries gene drives could fall into the hands of terrorists who could use them to destroy crops or worse.
JIM THOMAS: For example, a lot of work on gene drives is for insects and the idea of weaponizing insects - say that rather than not carrying malaria, they do carry some kind of toxin, for example - would be a particularly scary outcome.
STEIN: So it's clear that the debate over the potential risks and benefits of this powerful new gene drive genetic engineering is far from over. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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