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Bill Gates warns that nobody is paying attention to gene editing, a new technology that could make inequality even worse

Published: January 8, 2019
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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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Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day

Before last week, few people had heard the name He Jiankui. But on November 25, the young Chinese researcher became the center of a global firestorm when it emerged that he had allegedly made the first crispr-edited babies, twin girls named Lulu and Nana. Antonio Regalado broke the story for MIT Technology Review, and He himself described the experiment at an international gene-editing summit in Hong Kong. After his talk, He revealed that another early pregnancy is under way.

The gene editing technique CRISPR has been in the limelight after scientists reported they had used it to safely remove disease in human embryos for the first time. Concerns are mounting that gene editing could be used in the development of biological weapons. In 2016, Bill Gates remarked that “the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus”.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to double the sum it is spending to create a mosquito-killing technology that relies on CRISPR gene editing. The technique, called a gene drive, is a way to spread traits through wild populations of animals, but its ability to alter nature is drawing opposition from some environmental groups.

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