Because we were working on the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, it seemed important to us to know more about it. We wanted to lead a responsible project, but we realized we did not know much about the CRISPR/Cas9 technology and its huge consequences. So we decided to investigate the societal issues of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology.
This research on the societal issues of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology was for us a public engagement. We built a strong outreach by meeting public through survey, vox pop and exhibitions in order to explain synthetic biology and the CRISPR/Cas9 technology and gather their opinion about it. Then we met a lot of stakeholders in order to know more about those societal issues. It was highly important for us to meet stakeholders from different fields. So we met scientists, politics, and patent attorneys, all working with or about CRISPR/Cas9 technology. At last, we connected our research on the societal issues and our outreach by organizing a conference on the societal issues of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology.
Synthetic Biology Survey
In a first step, in order to build a better outreach, we wanted to know how much people knew about synthetic biology. We made a survey and spread it as much as possible.
We know surveys are not always the best reflection of the reality. In a vision of righteousness and honesty, we looked for the weaknesses of our results in order to have the best interpretation of it. Here are some rules we should keep in mind about this results:
- We tried to have answer of both scientists and non-scientists in reasonable proportion, in order to have a truest vision of the reality. If we didn’t pay attention we knew most of the people who would have answered would be people close to us, and most of them are scientists.
- This survey was spread on social networks. Most of the people who answered to it are French young people (79% of the people are between 20 and 30 years old).
Some questions interested us. We knew from previous experiences that synthetic biology is not well-known among public. A lot of medias talked about the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. We wanted to know if people without scientific background knew more about the CRISPR-Cas9 technology than synthetic biology. We imagine that we could see the influence of medias on scientific knowledge.
The survey showed us clearly that the influence of the media was not so important: only 10% of the people had heard about the CRISPR-Cas9 technology without knowing synthetic biology.
Figure 1 : Results as histogramms of our survey about global population awarness on synthetic biology and CRISPR/Cas9
The main factor of knowledge of synthetic biology and the CRISPR/Cas9 technology seems to be the scientific educational background.
Figure 2 : Results as histogramms of our survey about global population position on synthetic biology ethical issues
Ethics: We also wanted to know how a scientific formation could impact the perception of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. We thought people without scientific background would probably have more fears than people which have a scientific formation. Here again, our expectations have been challenged: 3% of the people without scientific background strongly fear the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, while 9% of people with scientific background strongly fear it… 66% of the people without scientific background and 60% of people with scientific background think the CRISPR-Cas9 technology could lead to new treatments.
The results are very low and quite similar: the perception of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology does not evolve that much, if you have a scientific background or not. People fear the CRISPR-Cas9 technology but as they know it could be beneficial for society they are in favor of it. Nonetheless, the bulk of the people we asked (76%) think editing genome is good but should respect strict laws.
The “Festival Vivant” was a three days festival, to debate and share views about living organisms and the way we use them. During these three days one could find conferences, workshops and meetings. The iGEM Paris Saclay’s team was there to present the field of synthetic biology and our iJ’AIME project. This festival presented different insights about living organisms to professionals, students and general audience. It also gave us an other opportunity to do some popular science. On this occasion we worked on popularizing science: we modeled our project, presented posters and used ludic tools to interact with the audience.
Laetitia at the Festival Vivant 2016
The iGEM Paris Saclay 2016 team made an exhibition at the University of Nanterre, a French university that has mostly non-scientific courses. We made posters and explained to students what was synthetic biology. It was a successful exhibition since the discussions we had were very different from the ones we normally do with a scientific or general audiences! At the end of each visit, the public was invited to leave us a message with their opinion about synthetic biology.
The event “Challenge du Monde des grandes écoles et universités (CMGE)” held on the 26th of July 2016 was a huge sportive event followed by a meeting where French students and companies were gathered. Yacine went to the event to present our team and explain what is synthetic biology and the CRISPR/Cas9 technology.
Our team made a vox pop in a park in Paris, “Les jardins du Luxembourg”. We wanted to know if people ever heard of Synthetic Biology and spread a better knowledge of the field. We've gathered a great amount of different opinions.
Video of the vox pop performed in Paris
Figure 3: Pie chart synthetising global population position on bacteria genome editing
What did we learn from all these experiments? Most of the people we met trust scientists to be responsible in their use of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, and do not feel is legitimate to criticize on a subject they do not master.
Figure 4: Pie chart synthetising global population position on animal genome editing
To the question about using animals on synthetic biology, the people who were against changing a bacteria's genome [Fig.3] were also against it for animal [Fig.4] . However, for some of them who said changing a bacteria's genome was conceivable, were against modifying an animal's genome because of the mistreatment of animals.
Figure 5: Pie chart synthetising global population position on synthetic food consumption
To the question "Would you eat something created in a lab?", most of the answers were "No" [Fig.5] . In fact, some of them were against this idea because of the consequences. The consequences are not clearly known, however consequences on the future generations and the fact that companies are getting the monopoly (turning it into a business) were approached. Nevertheless, this idea was seen as a potential solution in case of famine.
In order to know more about the societal issues of the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, we've met stakeholders from different fields around Science and Law.
Agnès Ricroch, Professor at AgroParisTech School working on plants and their regulations
She brought an interesting opinion: the CRISPR/Cas9 technology is not a revolution, but a continuity. In fact, everything the CRISPR/Cas9 technology is able to do already existed (like cutting the genome). Also the CRISPR/Cas9 technology isn't easier to use: we still need to do a transgenesis in order to use it and not everybody has the tools to do it.
On regulations Pr Ricroch casted a light on the non-coherence of the system. A lot of different regulations coexist, for GMO’s or plants for instance. However, sometimes those different regulations apply to the same object: how can we guess if an organism underwent genetic mutations? Often, those mutations cannot be seen in the final results. The law needs to be updated on the technologies, to be able to seize all of the evolutions. To learn more about GMO regulation, click here.
When we talk about the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, we immediately think about ethics and abuses. Mrs Ricroch had a strong concern on putting first the great challenges facing humanity. Among these challenges, some of them can be solved by science. She told us we had to weigh the pros and the cons. But we should always remember first the issues we would be able to solve with science.
For full interview: click here.
Marc Fellous, Emeritus Professor at Paris Diderot University and Medical Doctor
Pr Fellous told us that the CRISPR/Cas9 technique is a revolution because it eases genome editing, which obviously raised new issues. It is, thus, necessary to established rules. Today, the CRISPR/Cas9 technology has a wide range of applications: plants, animals, insects. The CRISPR technology is interesting today in the struggle with Zika virus transmitted by mosquitoes. Some researchers look at the question by modifying genetically female to render them sterile thereby erasing any progeny.
When it comes to the question: Does this technique should be applied to humans? Well, there is a general consensus among the scientific community, the answer is no, not if it affects the human progeny.
To sum up, the CRISPR technology is a more precise gene editing technique which ease the process and reduce the risk of “off-target”.
For full interview: click here.
Eric Enderlin, French and European Patent Attorney at Novagraaf
Legally speaking, the CRISPR/Cas9 technology does not raise any issue, patent law is the law of innovation. Research and legal protection can work together. The problem comes from a misguided perception: patentability provides a return on investment which allows to fund future researches. The example is clear when it comes to fund research for rare diseases. In those cases, where public fund is difficult to obtain because the number of patients is small, patentability offers a solution.
The objective of Patent law is not to restrain scientists in their work. In fact, 80% of the scientific information is contained in patents. As a consequence, Patent law must be seen more as a source of economic development and a source of information.
In France, the tradition for scientists is to publish their results for the recognition from their peers. This tradition destroys the requirement of novelty necessary to patent any invention. Thus, in France even if the country is well placed for innovation, there is a lack of valorization and protection.
For full interview: click here
Former French Minister of Higher Education and Research (2012-2014), Current Deputy
To be able to serve Science, ideological debates should be avoided and we need in France to have a more innovative approach. This is why interdisciplinary method has been implemented under the mandate of Mrs Fioraso.
The culture around Science needs to evolve, admitting risks and mistakes are the key elements, they must be seen as progress factors. And last but not least, the promotion of research goes through a simple idea: a patent should have the same value as a publication.
For full interview: click here
Marin, Victor and Claire at the French National Assembly to meet Mrs Fioraso
Member of the Parliamentary Office for the evaluation of scientific and technological options, French Senator
The parliamentary office organised hearings and round tables around the world to talk about CRISPR and its applications. CRISPR has three domains of applications : Human, plants and animals. Within the public health sector, the use of CRISPR creates hopes about the possible cure of rare diseases such as the Duchenne disease. Concerning the plants and animals , CRISPR is also advantageous: a mildew resistant grape has been created which allow to reduce the use of pesticides.
CRISPR is a progress , the only limit to the use of this technique comes from one point : we need to know the DNA sequence of the plant or the animal we want to modify. Some DNA are still not decoded.
For full interview: click here
Connect public and stakeholders
If we met public and stakeholders to improve our research on the societal issues on the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, we also connected the two. This connection happened during a conference we made about the societal issues of CRISPR/Cas9.
Conference about The Societal Issues of CRISPR Cas9
Video summary of the Conference about The Societal Issues of CRISPR/Cas9
Because we had a strong concern both on popular science and meeting stakeholders, we hold a conference in our university, in front of students, with two researchers, Jean Denis Faure, a researcher and teacher at AgroParisTech school using the CRISPR/Cas9 technology on plants, and Pierre Walrafen an European patent attorney.
French flyer for the conference on the societal stakes of CRISPR/Cas9
We tried with our guests to think about the societal issues of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, regarding ethics, the law and the economy. The ethical problems the CRISPR/Cas9 technology is bringing are huge, and for most of them, unknown. The ethical problems come with what is done with the technology: therapeutical applications ex vivo or for genetical diseases, or applications on embryos and germ cells. The ethical problems come along with the question of transhumanism. The issues are rising because of the simplicity of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, authorizing a wider scientific audience to edit the genome.
About the legal framework, our speakers made a comparison between the European legal framework, the process based evaluation, and the product based evaluation, and how the patentability was in Europe restrained by a principle of public order. To learn more about GMO regulation, click here.