Modernization of the Coordinated Framework Governing Regulation of Genetically Engineered Organisms
As genetic engineering emerged from laboratories in the 1970’s into the biotechnology industry in the 1980’s, the possibility of government regulation arose, with a central question of whether a drug, for example, produced by genetic engineering rather than conventional chemical synthesis, required a distinct regulatory response. In another version of that same question: did a genetically modified plant require a distinct biotechnology regulatory treatment or could the plant fit into established oversight routes for plants produced through convention breeding techniques? In its most generic form, the debate that began in the 1980's wrestled with whether biotechnology processes produce inherently distinct products that demanded novel regulatory responses. According to the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology announced by White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 1986, the answer was generally no; a product or an engineered organism could be evaluated by the traditional agencies and laws that already existed to identify and manage risk. The
coordinated framework thus divided the primary regulation of
biotechnology products among three agencies – the Department of
Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA). That scheme was updated in 1992, and that document continued to be the last word in regulatory design. Now the White House OSTP has announced that it will initiate a modernization of the 1992 policy. In a just-published memorandum to the three federal agencies, the OSTP first provides a definition of “biotechnology products” that will be the targets of the review:
For the purpose of this memo, “biotechnology products” refers to products developed through genetic engineering or the targeted or in vitro manipulation of genetic information of organisms, including plants, animals, and microbes. It also covers some of the products produced by such plants, animals, and microbes or their derived products as determined by existing statutes and regulations. Products such as human drugs and medical devices are not the focus of the activities described in this memo.
In a briefing document on its blog, the OSTP has described the process ahead:
The goal of the effort is to ensure public confidence in the regulatory system and improve the transparency, predictability, coordination, and, ultimately, efficiency of the biotechnology regulatory system. Here is a bit more detail about the effort’s three components:
A modernized jurisdictional design could address some overlap between the responsible agencies, while also considering newer technologies and their placement into the scheme. For example, new organisms or products from the more recent field of synthetic biology might not fit the traditional category of “genetically engineered” which contemplated a small number of discrete and planned changes into an existing organism. A recent study from the Venter Institute on the regulatory challenges raised by synthetic biology endorsed the basic earlier principle that a product should be evaluated for its own discrete risk profile even when produced through synthetic biology; however, the study notes that specific jurisdictional boundaries between the three federal agencies and specific legal authorities need to be updated to account for an expanding portfolio of genetic engineering modalities that will produce even more novel organisms than the first wave of genetic engineering.
First, the Administration will update the Coordinated Framework, after public input, by clarifying the current roles and responsibilities of the EPA, USDA, and FDA in the regulatory process. This update will help clarify which biotechnology product areas are within the authority and responsibility of each agency and outline how the agencies work together to regulate products that may fall under the authorities of multiple agencies.
Second, the Administration will develop a long-term strategy, after public input, to ensure that the Federal regulatory system is well-equipped to assess efficiently any risks associated with the future products of biotechnology. This will include performing periodic horizon-scanning of new biotech products, coordinating support for the science that informs regulatory activities, developing tools to assist small businesses as they navigate the regulatory system, and creating user-friendly digital tools for presenting the agencies’ authorities, practices, and basis for decision-making.
Third, the Administration will commission an outside, independent analysis of the future landscape of the products of biotechnology. The Administration has already asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct such an analysis.
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