European elections 2019: science at the polls
In the context of the European elections, European Scientist is bringing you a series of views from experts from different countries on various topics around science and science policy in Europe, to provide an overview and analysis, which will be useful for the next commission.
ES: Where do NBTs stand in Europe? Are there any unique features about the European industry?
The most effective “new biotechnologies”, under the heading “gene editing” or genome rewriting, are those classed as CRISPR, often followed by CAS9 – which relates to the enzyme (molecular scissors) most often used. The various methods of “gene editing” have the common feature that the DNA targeted by these molecular scissors is cut in a specific location. The DNA will then be “repaired” by the cell (a common phenomenon), but there may be a repair that is not identical to the original, i.e. a mutation. This mutation increases the diversity of genes and can lead to the mutated gene possessing a new property. The advantage of the CRISPR/CAS9 system is that the scissors are “guided” to a specific location on the chromosomes by RNA that can “match” the targeted DNA, if its “sequence” (the order of the 4 letters of the “alphabet of life”) matches the DNA sequence that you want to change. That means the most important thing is to carefully select the RNA that will be introduced into the cells with these scissors.
The technique was developed in the USA, and subsequently a number of laboratories around the world have learned to use this technology, which is becoming as popular a tool as transgenesis, which is now relegated to the status of classic tech. Where the situation is much more alarming for Europe is from the point of view of intellectual property.
In a recent publication, we examined all patents describing inventions involving a CRISPR system (CAS 9 or other “molecular scissors”). The global CRISPR patent landscape shows that the technology, which is constantly being improved, permits a diverse range of potential applications (medical, industrial, agricultural). The players are both public and private entities. American laboratories continue to lead the way in technical improvements and medical applications. However, China is now the leader in the industrial and agricultural sectors (plant and animal) and in the total number of patents annually.
This has enabled us to show that a new balance of geopolitical forces has emerged in this crucial field of biotechnology. This can be explained by the massive investments in biotechnology in China. It is striking that in all sectors, the number of CRISPR patents from Europe is much lower than those from the United States and China. We suggest that Europe’s weak position is due to the still unresolved controversy over GMOs across the continent, and also to a “cultural” reluctance to file patents. This trend can also be seen for patents in the health arena (which is not a controversial biotechnology field like agriculture).
ES: Recently the ECJ wanted to legislate to regulate NBTs and make them subject to the same legislation as GMOs. What do you think of that?
The ECJ opinion is based on its reading of the European Directive on GMOs. It legally defines what is a genetic modification, what is not a genetic modification, and what is a genetic modification while being exempt from the said regulation…. It is absurd from a scientific point of view, and that absurdity was laid bare when it examined the case of these new biotechnologies. Not all the lawyers agreed, but it was the ECJ’s reading to classify them as “GMOs”, in my opinion, to conform to the precautionary principle, even if it meant appearing even more absurd from a technical point of view. In fact, a mutation created by an older method will not be classified as “GMO”, whereas the same mutation obtained by the new biotechnologies will be.
The precautionary principle has shown itself now to be a tool for the wholesale destruction of innovation, because the constraints it imposes (in a discriminatory way between new and old technologies) make these innovations economically unviable, without providing any benefit to health or the environment, because the vision of the risks it implies is a purely ideological product!
ES: What should the next commission do to encourage this sector? What are your recommendations?
I think that the new Commission, unless it is particularly obtuse, will be aware of the technological and economic suicide which is in progress. It should also be apparent to it, in many areas, that “Empires” like China and the United States have devised a powerful strategy, which Europe has not done. The risk of becoming client states is therefore very real.
Problems: can a power strategy be defined by 28 (or 27) Member States? Can this Europe, based on a vision of universal peace, manage to convince itself that we are in the middle of an economic war? Can this Europe return the precautionary ideology, which has become omnipresent, to a more reasoned position?
To return to biotechnologies, a simple brush-up of the Directive will not be enough. We must abandon the very basis of its principle based on the method of obtaining a product, and focus on the properties of the final product (regardless of the method used to obtain it).