Last year, NIH unveiled the Novel and Exceptional Technology & Research Advisory Committee (NExTRAC), a forum for advice and transparent discussions about the scientific, safety, and social issues associated with emerging biotechnologies. Today and tomorrow, the NExTRAC will be meeting to address its first two charges: considering the safety and responsible use of gene drives in biomedical research and establishing a framework to guide NExTRAC in future deliberations of emerging biotechnologies. Amidst the continuing backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proactive consideration of science on the horizon may feel esoteric, but science continues unabated and so must our examination of the appropriate boundaries under which to continue to develop new biotechnologies to improve human health and quality of life.
Indeed the recent celebration of the Nobel Prize awarded to Drs. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for development of the CRISPR gene editing technology and announcement of the World Health Organization (WHO) position on genetically modified mosquitoes, illustrate the timeliness of Monday and Tuesday’s NExTRAC workshop on biosafety guidance and considerations for field work for the use of gene drives. There are many questions to be considered in using this technology to control vector-borne diseases, like malaria or dengue fever, ranging from the practical – is current biosafety guidance adequate? – to the scientific – what is the current state of the science on risk mitigation strategies? – to policy implicating – what is the state of infrastructure for oversight and engagement? We hope that the convening of experts in the field and comments from the public will begin to bring some clarity to these questions.
Gene drives is, of course, only one of many emerging technologies on the horizon, and the Working Group to Establish a NExTRAC Framework is laying the groundwork for future considerations of these technologies by the Committee. They will be presenting a draft report describing their current thinking on identification of emerging technologies or areas of science and a deliberative process and prompts for discussing and evaluating such technologies. This framework, pending approval by the NExTRAC, will be incredibly useful for guiding the work of NExTRAC in the future.
In keeping with the commitment of the NExTRAC as a public and transparent forum for discourse, the virtual meeting can be watched live at: https://videocast.nih.gov and will be archived for future viewing. We hope you will have a chance to tune in and public input on NExTRAC activities is always welcome at SciencePolicy@od.nih.gov.
Posted by Dr. Carrie D. Wolinetz, November 9, 2020