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SMC: Gene drives in conservation

Gene drives in conservation
Researchers have called for caution when considering the possible future use of gene editing technologies for conservation.

To reach New Zealand's Predator Free 2050 goal, researchers have been considering gene-editing techniques to rid the country of invasive stoats, rats and possums.

But writing in PLOS Biology, University of Otago's Professor Neil Gemmell and MIT's Assistant Professor Kevin Esvelt cautioned that self-propagating versions like gene drives may be uncontrollable and therefore unsuited to conservation.

Esvelt originally suggested gene drives could be used in conservation but now says that was a mistake. Because a gene drive system promotes the inheritance of a particular gene, it would spread throughout a population and could be accidentally or intentionally spread beyond the target area.

Gemmell and Esvelt pointed to the illegal release of calicivirus in New Zealand as an example of how some individuals may deliberately move gene-edited species to gain an advantage.

They said localised drive systems like Gemmell's 'Trojan female' or Esvelt's 'daisy dive' technologies could be safe enough to consider.

University of Auckland philosopher Dr Emily Parke said the article gave an "important cautionary perspective on the release of gene drives in New Zealand (or anywhere)".

"It is easy to get carried away imagining the possibilities ... so transparency about the scope and limitations of the actual technology being developed will be a crucial aspect of this public dialogue."

Massey University's Professor Barry Scott, who is co-chair of the Royal Society Te Apārangi gene editing panel, said the article was a timely caution.

"Given the scale of the pest issue in New Zealand and the urgency with which we need to find better solutions to prevent further extinctions there is a great temptation to look for ‘silver bullets’."

Bioheritage National Science Challenge director Dr Andrea Byrom said New Zealand was already taking a "cautious and responsible approach to the use of gene editing technologies for mammal pests".

"Contrary to the hype, gene drive technology for mammals is still highly theoretical, and I must emphasise that no such research is currently being conducted in New Zealand," she said.

"We have literally years of technological development ahead of us before we could proceed with deployment in the field, and future use of gene editing technologies, including gene drive, will be in the hands of the public of New Zealand to decide."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the paper.

Quoted: The Spinoff
"Ancient Greeks and ancient Romans already had ideas of combining timber and masonry, in a slightly different fashion, but the basic principles are the same.

"We’re not actually technically inventing anything new, we’re just rediscovering the old knowledge."

University of Auckland seismic engineer Dr Dmytro Dizhur on
using timber to make unreinforced masonry facades safer.

Media reports of HPV vaccine
Some of the adverse events reported after the HPV vaccine rollout may have been related to news coverage rather than the vaccine itself.

According to an Australian study, which looked at seven years of news coverage, whenever news stories spiked the following month saw an increase in the number of reported adverse events with the vaccine.

The researchers suggested that some of these reported events were linked to media coverage, which might have contributed to public concerns about unpleasant or harmful outcomes.

University of Auckland vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris said when people were reminded about an adverse event though the media "they may be more likely to report it".

"This is a good thing, not a bad thing," she said, as the reporting system was in place to detect any unusual or unexpected patterns, rather than determine the safety profile of a vaccine.

"What is not so good is the potential for scare stories with no evidence to support them to rattle people’s confidence. We know from other studies that this can happen and affect the decision to vaccinate."
"An important fact is that the Gardasil vaccine is extremely safe, a status supported by many extraordinarily large global scientific studies," Dr Petousis-Harris said. "You are more likely to be struck by lightning than have a severe reaction to the vaccine."

High uptake of vaccine

The uptake of the vaccine that protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV) has been strong this year. Pharmac manager of procurement and contract Greg Williams told Radio NZ that uptake was 30 per cent higher than forecast, which along with a delay in shipment, meant stocks had been tight.

The vaccine has been fully-funded for boys and young men since the start of the year, and in the first six months of 2017, 33,000 young men had been vaccinated.

Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner said she was "a little surprised" by the high uptake among boys and young men. "I wasn't sure it would be this high...I think now that people realise that this is a 'cancer vaccine', and it's not a 'sex vaccine'."

"This vaccine is actually tremendous, it's having an extraordinary impact around the world, so it's great that it's getting into the collective knowledge and psyche of New Zealand and people are beginning to understand it in New Zealand in a way that we probably didn't two or three years ago."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the study.

Policy news & developments

Fishery closure extended: The emergency closure of some fisheries along the Kaikōura coast is being extended to help the marine environment affected by last year's earthquake to recover.

Farm tests positive: One of the Waimate farms placed under restrictions last week has tested positive for Mycoplasma bovis.

Mouse island response: The Department of Conservation is responding to a possible mouse sighting on pest-free Tiritiri Matangi Island.

New Pharmac boss: Sarah Fitt will take over as Pharmac's chief executive in January, following the announcement that Steffan Crausaz will step down from the role.

Tokelau climate agreement: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement have been extended to also apply to Tokelau.

Chief tech officer: The Government has signalled it will appoint a Chief Technology Officer.

2018 SAVVY workshop dates
Applications are open for the first two-day science media SAVVY workshop for 2018, to be held in Auckland.
The Science Media Centre’s highly-acclaimed two-day workshop offers researchers first-hand insight into the workings of news and social media, as well as hands-on, practical exercises to improve communication.

Our experienced facilitators provide a supportive environment for researchers to consider their work from different perspectives and find new ways to describe the value of their research to the public.

Ideally suited for researchers with previous media experience seeking further development of their skills, as well as beginners anticipating media interest in their work.

Applications for the first Auckland workshop close at the end of January, so you may like to get an application in before the Christmas break. Apply here.

2018 workshop dates

Auckland: 12-13 February
Wellington: 14-15 June
Auckland: 6-7 September
Dunedin: 25-26 October

More information about our Science Media SAVVY workshops is available on our website and via Curious Minds.

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