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Nov. 28, 2018 — The mistakes brought on by misunderstanding

One year ago, a parent of two Division I field hockey players started a treatment at a major American teaching hospital involving stem cells, the cells in our bodies from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated.

Today, the parent reports being in good health.

It was not so long ago that stem cells were the source of immense controversy in the medical and scientific communities, to the point where President George W. Bush banned federal funding for new lines of stem cell research in 2001, putting the U.S. behind many Asian countries, notably Japan, China, and Korea, in terms of research and development of stem cell treatment.

The ban was lifted by the Obama administration nine years ago.

This week, there has been a firestorm over a presentation made at a three-day conference on genome editing by Jiankui He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology. He claims to have edited the genetic code of two baby girls born to an HIV-positive father and an HIV-negative mother, so that the children would be immune to HIV.

The firestorm in the news media has been one-sided, and somewhat predictable. Science journalism is a lost art in the United States, with almost no newspapers in the United States maintaining a science desk or a science bureau. The number of registered science writers has dropped by about 10 percent from 2007 to 2018, many of whom have hung out their own shingle in order to promote the free flow of science information.

Indeed, the firestorm is being promulgated by the same talking heads who breathlessly talk about plane crashes and email servers without expertise, context, and perspective.

The negative publicity about He’s research, I posit, needs to be viewed from the perspective of the nationalism of scientific research. Two-thirds of Chinese, according to one on-line poll, support the need for gene-editing in order to treat or prevent diseases. And the Chinese government has been listening: state-sponsored genomic research totaled more than a quarter of a trillion dollars last year.

China has been trying to catch up to the United States in the field of genetic editing, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this same kind of outrage would have been sparked in American media if this kind of research on actual embryos was being done at Stanford or Harvard.

It would appear, despite the head-shaking over in-vitro fertilization 40 years ago, or stem cells 15 years ago, or gene-editing today, that the technology is here, and it’s time to get used to it.

It might save lives.

 

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