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Gene Editing The Next Social Divide

By: Emma Court

Gene editing is one of the most promising new approaches to treating human diseases today. 

It also raises “enormous” ethical questions, Bill Gates recently warned, and “could make inequity worse, especially if it is available only for wealthy people.” 

“I am surprised that these issues haven’t generated more attention from the general public,” he said in a December blog post, adding that “this might be the most important public debate we haven’t been having widely enough.” 

Gene editing allows scientists to make powerful, precise changes to a person’s DNA, typically to fix a defective gene.

Ethical concerns about what the approach might be used for have long existed, but it came to a boil recently when a Chinese researcher said he had played a role in creating the first genetically edited babies. 

Gene editing has already taken place in humans in the US as a one-time treatment for disease. But unlike those efforts, the Chinese scientist’s work would allow genetic changes to be passed down to other generations. It quickly sparked backlash, with many researchers describing the project as concerning and unethical. 

Gates’ warning, released as part of the billionaire philanthropist’s 2018 wrap-up, appears to have been prompted by that recent news. 

“I agree with those who say this scientist went too far,” Gates said. “But something good can come from his work if it encourages more people to learn and talk about gene editing.”

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