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Emerging issues in genetic engineering

SHERIDAN — Last week’s Biotech Conference at Sheridan College brought in world-renowned experts in the area of biological law and policy to provide an overview of emerging issues in genetic engineering.

Dr. Harvey Blackburn, coordinator of the National Animal Germplasm Program for the Department of Agriculture, introduced concepts from Nagoya Protocol of the international Convention on Biological Diversity to a small audience of scientists and entrepreneurs. The protocol, which will be accepted by many U.S. trading partners, establishes guidelines for developers who trade, and possibly modify, genetic information.

Blackburn said the protocol sets up a code of ethics for genetic business opportunities.

“There is a perception by some countries that the developed world uses genetic resources without giving out a fair share of revenue,” Blackburn explained.

The Nagoya Protocol, named after the Japanese city where the guidelines were established for world trade, calls for complete disclosure of intended uses of genetic information, like plants or livestock, before the resources leave its country of origin.

From there, provisions for benefit sharing extend into infinite future generations.

While approximately 20 countries have accepted the protocol, the United States has not. Blackburn said natural variations in expression of genes, called genetic drift, frequently cause a sample population to yield a markedly different species within relatively few generations. He said the Nagoya protocol provides for royalty payments back to a host country even when significant, planned scientific investment has created an essentially different life form than what was initially taken.

“The issue we have with all this is these policy initiative are so broad and they have not considered many types of specifics in their formulation,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn said the protocol could cause increased transaction costs and a reduction in the flow of genetic resources between countries.

Dr. Eric Welch, director of science technology and environmental policy at the University of Chicago, said the potential chilling effect on genetic research implemented by the protocol is an obstacle to genetic innovation.

“What you need are ‘weak ties,'” he said. “People with unusual sources, unusual data, different material, stuff that isn’t in your close, trusted tie network.”

“These constraints are affecting the strategy of collaboration of our scientists,” Welsh said, who added most sharing of genetic data happens via informal means within the U.S.

Blackburn said the protocol could cause increased transaction costs and a reduction in the flow of genetic resources between countries.

The sharing and discussion of global policies was hosted at Sheridan College in an initiative by Forward Sheridan to raise awareness about what Sheridan has to offer biotechnology-based businesses looking to relocate.

About

Tracee Davis

Tracee Davis joined the staff at The Sheridan Press in July of 2013. She covers business, energy and public safety. Tracee grew up in Kemmerer and has lived in several locations both in the U.S. and overseas. Her journalism training stems from her military service.

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