Just a few weeks after DARPA announced a major investment in developing brain-computer interface technology, the US government department has revealed another major project. The Safe Genes program is set to invest US$65 million over four years in seven teams that will investigate ways to make gene editing technologies safer, more targeted and potentially even reversible.
"The field of gene editing has been advancing at an astounding pace, opening the door to previously impossible genetic solutions but without much emphasis on how to mitigate potential downsides," says Safe Genes program manager Renee Wegrzyn. "DARPA launched Safe Genes to begin to refine those capabilities by emphasizing safety first for the full range of potential applications, enabling responsible science to proceed by providing tools to prevent and mitigate misuse."
The program has three main technical objectives: to develop processes that allow greater control of genome editing in living systems, to develop countermeasures that protect genome integrity in populations, and to investigate a way to remove engineered genes from living systems.
Being a department primarily associated with national security it is easy to understand where DARPA is coming from with this program. It's hoped the research will develop ways that could provide protection from biological technologies that are unleashed with no regard for consequences. The DARPA announcement does point out that the program is related to both intentional and accidental misuse of gene editing technologies.
Much of the research will look at ways to inhibit gene drive systems. Gene drives are gene-editing techniques that promote the inheritance of a specific genetic modification through a population. It's often discussed in relation to genetically modifying mosquitoes, to either limit their populations or their ability to transmit diseases.
The obvious concern with gene drive techniques is that it's impossible to know the full ramifications of releasing a genetic modification into the environment until it is actually happening. This is why DARPA is investing such serious money into finding ways to inhibit or reverse any damage that could be done either maliciously or accidentally.
One of the funded projects from UC Riverside, for example, is specifically examining ways to develop reversible gene drive systems in mosquito populations, while other projects will seek to find ways to measure and limit the off-target effects of genome editing. The funded programs cover projects from institutions including The Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, and North Carolina State University.
It's interesting research, and while the skeptical will surely see ways these innovations can be militarized or weaponized, these are still important areas that need investment and investigation. The teams will also liaise with government regulators in an effort to allay any fears policy makers may have and take on board feedback on whether any tools developed should be applied in the future, and if so, how.
"As with all powerful capabilities, society can and should weigh the risks and merits of responsibly using such tools," says Wegrzyn. "We believe that further research and development can inform that conversation by helping people to understand and shape what is possible, probable, and vulnerable with these technologies."