Understanding the urgent need to control insect-borne diseases in the country, Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has started working on bringing out a guidance document for transgenic insects. The document will act as a regulatory guideline for conducting any research activities that is aimed at genetic engineering of insects for the purpose of safeguarding public health and well being.
Transgenic insects are genetically modified insects which are genetically engineered to reduce and control the risks of transmission of disease that can cause economic as well as social harm to humans. DBT started the work on this project almost six months back, and is currently in the last leg of framing all the required regulatory provisions and hopes to finish the work within a year's time.
Through this initiative, DBT aims to tackle major insect-borne human diseases that are transmitted through the insects like mosquitoes and bugs. If things go as planned this technology will help in controlling and reducing major disease burden in India which is caused due to mosquitoes that cause malaria, dengue fever etc. At present, the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), an autonomous organisation funded by the DBT is working on this project.
According to Dr K K Tripathi, advisor, DBT, “The document is being prepared to control and allow genetic engineering of only those insects that has become pests, endangering the health of the people of this country. Our aim is to prepare a frame work that will lead to use transgenic insects only to reduce harmful and dangerous species with less harmful varieties as a new control method. It is being prepared keeping in mind our country's specific disease based needs so that it can be used to benefit the interest of Indian population. It will contain all the parameters and requirements that needs to be followed and will be in line with requirements as mentioned in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.”
Transgenic insects are produced by inserting new genes into their DNA. Scientists have proposed two distinct strategies involving the release of GM insects, population suppression and population replacement. Population suppression strategies are potentially an improvement of the sterile insect technique that do not require radiation sterilisation. They are also applicable to a wide range of pest insects as the design of the genes inserted may be readily adapted to new species. This strategy is the furthest forward in development.
Though existing legislation was designed to govern all genetically modified organisms (GMOs), its implementation has so far focused on the regulation of GM crops. Genetic modification has been proposed as a new way of controlling insect pests, however, in the light of lack of proper regulatory guidelines for releasing genetically modified insects into the living population, the idea is not widely accepted by many.
However, Dr Tripathy, states, “Keeping in mind, the growing health concerns arising out of the menace of uncontrolled population of insects, especially from the rapidly increasing breed of drug resistant insects like mosquitoes, it is essential to find a substitute measure to control this situation at the earliest. However, even though this technology has a great potential to address healthcare needs of our country, we are being very cautious while drafting this document and are taking all the required precautions to ensure that this technology is not misutilised by anyone.”
Legislation regulating GMOs has been widely initiated in the rest of the world since the ratification of the Cartagena programme. The release of a GM insect within any EU member state is controlled by European Directive, known as the Deliberate Release Directive, which regulates deliberate release of all GMOs into the environment. In Africa, the African Union has drafted the African Model Law on biosafety, and recently individual countries, such as Kenya with its Biosafety Act of 2009, have created legislation regulating the release of GMOs into the environment.