Companies and scientists developing genetically modified (GM) insects for release in the wild need to be more open with safety data, contends an article published online today in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
A number of field trials of GM insects have already taken place. The most prominent are recent tests in the Cayman Islands and Malaysia involving male mosquitoes that were engineered to be sterile. They were conducted by the Oxford, UK firm Oxitec (see ‘GM Mosquitoes wipe out dengue fever in trial’ and ‘Female mosquitoes tricked by spermless males’). Notably, confusion over the scope of a small 2010 release in Malaysia raised concerns that trials were proceeding without adequate public consultation (see ‘Letting the bugs out of the bags‘).
Guy Reeves, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, and his team analysed publicly available information on the safety assessments conducted by government regulators for the Oxitec trials, as well as earlier field trials of GM bollworms sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture.
Too often, scientific information important to determining the safety of the releases was not available, Reeves says. For instance, Oxitec’s published research suggests that a small number of genetically modified females are likely to be released in the trials. This is of potential concern because females bite humans, whereas males do not. Reeves could not find any public documents evaluating this risk.
He worries that missing safety information could undermine public support for trials, which have the potential to stem the transmission of diseases such as dengue fever and malaria. “We’re not arguing transparency for transparency’s sake. We’re arguing it for very strategic reasons, for the future of this technology. If the regulators can’t create a widespread belief that there is value in evaluating this promising technology, then it won’t be evaluated and the field will stagnate,” Reeves says.
His team drew up a checklist for assessing the scientific quality of safety data supporting a field trial. The list calls for the publication of supporting data in peer-reviewed journals, supporting data from independent researchers, and special consideration if there is potential for transgenic insects to bite humans.
Luke Alphey, chief scientific officer at Oxitec, agrees that public engagement is crucial to field trials of GM insects. However, in a phone interview and a published response he took issue with aspects of Reeves’s paper. “I entirely understand his calls for transparency in the context of public confidence in the process,” Alphey says. “But I think he confused transparency and scientific quality.” Just because some safety data are not public, does not mean they are not of high quality, he says.
Image of Aedes aegypti mosquito, the species Oxitec introduced in Malaysia and the Cayman Islands, via Wikimedia Commons.