Supporters of the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF) searched in vain for a definitive answer to the question “does gene editing compromise the welfare of animals?” at its AWF Discussion Forum in London on Wednesday 11 May. Experts from both sides of the ethical divide made their case on whether the potential benefits of gene modifying technologies for animals outweighed any negative effects of the procedures on the individuals concerned. For many members of the audience the debate brought greater clarity on the issues surrounding gene editing, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the forum failed to achieve a consensus view.
Proposing the motion that gene editing is unacceptable, Matt Leach, lecturer in laboratory animal welfare at the University of Newcastle, argued that these methods “have the potential to compromise animal welfare faster and more severely than anything that has come before.” They have also become very widely used, with around one-third of all the animals used in laboratory experiments undergoing some form of gene editing process.
One-third of all the animals used in laboratory experiments under[go] some form of gene editing process
Most of these animals are mice, with the changes intended to explore the function of specific genes or to provide a model for a human genetic disease, such as cystic fibrosis. The direct effects of those changes on welfare can be anticipated, monitored and ameliorated, but there may also be unpredictable indirect effects of unknown severity and duration, warned Matt. He also queried whether the husbandry conditions for these animals are acceptable. The mice will often be immunocompromised, requiring them to be kept individually in barren cages and handled using forceps. They are fed an unnatural autoclaved diet and kept in conditions in which high throughput ventilation will create ambient temperatures well below their preferred level.
Dr Penny Hawkins, head of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) animals in science department, seconded this proposition. She insisted that many of the aims of gene editing studies in farmed species can be achieved through traditional breeding methods, which hold few of the welfare risks of gene editing technologies. Any proposed study involving gene insertion or deletion should be examined on an individual case-by-case basis, she argued. Approval should only be given if there are no alternative methods available and there must be assurances that the research will offer genuine animal welfare benefits rather than purely economic advantages.
She acknowledged that gene editing may appear to offer simple and effective solutions for long-standing welfare problems. For example, silencing the genes responsible for the growth of horns in cattle would appear to have welfare benefits for calves by eliminating the need for painful dehorning procedures, but the same goal can be achieved through better husbandry. Meanwhile, she feared that research into inserting genes for improved disease resistance could lead to poorer husbandry standards and reduced emphasis on veterinary surveillance.
Science does not take place in a vacuum – usually it is carried out in the public’s name and with public money, and so it is important to take account of public opinion
Penny also warned that it should not be left to either the scientists conducting the research or the institutions employing them to decide what studies are acceptable and where the ethical boundaries lie. Science does not take place in a vacuum – usually it is carried out in the public’s name and with public money, and so it is important to take account of public opinion and not to simply dismiss their views as being “emotional, unscientific and undeserving of serious consideration”, she said.
Opposing the motion, Madeleine Campbell, professor of veterinary ethics at the Nottingham vet school, argued that if gene editing can be used to improve animal welfare for current and future generations, then there is an ethical imperative to apply these tools. They clearly have the potential to produce faster outcomes and with more specific and predictable results than traditional breeding methods, she said.
Madeleine rejected the suggestion that effects on animal welfare should be the sole consideration when deciding whether to proceed with research on animals that involves gene modification. With studies in areas such as resistance to trypanosomiasis in cattle, there is scope for creating scientific advances that will benefit both human and animal health. This also comes with associated improvements in the economic efficiency of agriculture in some of the world’s poorest countries, she noted.
What makes gene editing different from the methods used for hundreds of years in conventional agriculture is that it produces highly specific changes – ‘it is down to choice, not chance’
Professor Bruce Whitelaw, director of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, argued that the technology involved in gene editing and manipulation is ethically neutral, and what is important is how the technology is applied for good or ill. What makes gene editing different from the methods used for hundreds of years in conventional agriculture is that it produces highly specific changes – “it is down to choice, not chance”, he said. Bruce argued that it will be important for the UK government to continue discussions with the scientific community and the public about regulating developments in gene editing technologies. In some countries, such as Japan, these arguments have been settled and approval has been granted for food produced from genetically modified animals to enter the human food chain – in this case, strains of fish modified for improved growth rates.
The audience voted on the proposed question before and after the debate. The results showed some shift in attitudes towards gene editing, with a significant proportion deciding to climb off the ethical fence by giving up the earlier majority view that gene editing could “maybe” compromise animal welfare. But at the end of the day, those changing their minds transferred their votes fairly evenly between the “yes” and “no” camps.