Reengineering Life is a series from Future Human about the astonishing ways genetic technology is changing humanity and the world around us.
In sub-Saharan Africa, millions of people suffer from sickle cell disease, and an estimated 50% to 90% of children born with the ailment die before the age of five. Bill Gates says he has a plan to cure it.
The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire is investing millions of dollars into the development of low-cost gene-editing treatments that could be far more accessible than current transplant-based treatments. “We believe that over the next decade, we will be able to make this breakthrough,” Gates said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February.
Recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded several grants to biotech companies, academic organizations, and nonprofits to further that goal. It’s all part of an initiative announced last year, in which the Gates Foundation and the U.S. National Institutes of Health each pledged $100 million to develop affordable, gene-based cures for sickle cell and HIV, which disproportionately affect Africans and those of African descent. They plan to launch trials of these treatments in the United States and sub-Saharan Africa within the next seven to 10 years.
Sickle cell arises when a person inherits a genetic mutation that causes their blood cells to become sticky and sickle-shaped. These misshapen cells stick together and block blood vessels, causing severe pain, infection, and stroke. In the United States, about 100,000 people, most of them Black, are affected by the disease.
The side effects of sickle cell can be treated with pain medications and blood transfusions, and in some cases, children and teenagers can even be cured with a bone marrow transplant. But the vast majority of people with sickle cell live in resource-poor countries and can’t access or afford these treatments. Even in the United States, a transplant is only possible…