When the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh announced the birth of the world’s first cloned mammal 20 years ago today, they caused more of a stir than the average royal baby. Dolly the sheep was a landmark breakthrough that brought together a potent mix of cutting-edge science, public interest, and ethical questions.
In the 20 years since, bioscience research and biotechnology has continued to race forward. They have brought us advances as unimaginable as the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells; complete sequencing of the human genome, and the development of genome-editing techniques.
As with cloning, each of these technologies holds potential to bring incredible advances for human health. Some of these are already being realised, like the use of genomics for the diagnosis of rare diseases as in the Genomics England 100,000 genomes programme, and the use of personalised stem cells to help discover new medicines. For others we will have to wait a few years to see if their potential will be realised, like the possibility to edit disease out of our genes. However, a number of issues need to be tackled before the full benefits of these advances can be realised for patients.
Firstly, like cloning, each of these technologies raises numerous ethical questions. Who gets the benefits? What are the risks? Can we identify them all? What about for future generations? There is an increasing recognition in our scientific sector of the importance of engaging openly and early in technology development. This has to be with the public alongside scientists, policymakers, and cultural and religious leaders, to shape the direction of biotechnology development towards outputs that are acceptable to society. The ongoing work of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics who are exploring the implications of genome editing, and the current Science & Technology Committee inquiry on genomics and genome editing, are valuable exercises in achieving this dialogue.
The inquiry is also exploring a variety of other areas important for bringing the benefits of these technologies to UK patients. One area is how we can ensure our skills base in the UK keeps up with technological advances. New fields of work, like genomics and genome editing, require scientists, technicians and healthcare professionals with new combinations of skills. There are a number of great initiatives seeking to train scientists and doctors in fields such as genetics and cellular and molecular pathology in the UK. One outstanding skills gap for our industry and the broader sector is in data handling and bioinformatics. These skills are important for linking up and using the large amount of data generated through genomics studies in combination with health data. We will need to train people in this emerging field between mathematical sciences and biology, to make sure we can take full advantage of the new technologies available.
It is also important that these technologies be embedded, not only within our universities and research centres, but also within the NHS. The Genomics England flagship 100,000 Genomes project has made strides towards embedding genomics within the NHS through the Genomic Medicine Centres. It is important that this infrastructure is sustainable beyond the 100,000 Genomes project to truly realise the opportunities of the sciences in the longer term. Additionally there remain difficulties in linking and using health data for medical research, and in commissioning and use of personalised medicines and their diagnostics, which depend upon genetic tests, within the NHS.
Genome editing, and cell and gene therapies more broadly, raise even greater challenges for their use within the healthcare system, due to the complexity of their transport, supply chain, manufacture, and specialised delivery. This is why the Advanced Therapy Taskforce recently recommended that the government establish a network of Cell and Gene Therapy Treatment Centres: so that the UK can lead in delivering these innovative treatments to patients, as well as in the science that underpins them.
20 years ago, Dolly's birth made waves both in scientific circles and in the wider public. The technologies under development today have the potential to create an even larger impact on human health and society's interaction with biotechnologies. Ensuring the UK has the infrastructure in place to deliver these benefits to patients and balancing this with open public engagement that truly influences the direction of technology development, will be a challenge. We look forward to hearing the Science & Technology Committee's verdict on how well we are doing in meeting it, and where the UK can go next.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry provided written evidence to the Science & Technology Committee's inquiry into Genomics and Gene Editing. This submission is available to view online.