Jodi Halpern, professor of bioethics in the School of Public Health and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical program, traveled to Davos, Switzerland to speak at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in January. Each year, WEF invites a few thousand leaders in politics, business, nonprofits, and media, and a small group of 150 academics from around the world to discuss society’s most pressing issues, from international trade and education to energy and the environment.
This was Halpern’s second consecutive year speaking at the annual meeting. She uses her expertise in psychiatry, philosophy and affective forecasting to study how innovative technologies, including gene editing, artificial intelligence and virtual reality transform relationships and society in unexpected ways.
She was on six panels at Davos on topics including gene editing, bioengineering, virtual reality and empathy.
In one of these panels, she served as a sole co-panelist with National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzau in a conversation on gene editing, or the ability to potentially scissor-cut specific genetic sequences and replace them. In the last few months, gene editing technologies like CRISPR have hit the international headlines, culminating in an announcement at the end of last year that a researcher in China had successfully altered the genome of twin baby girls.
Halpern and Dzau discussed how this technology has lead to many philosophical and technical questions among researchers. When applied to the treatment of certain diseases, gene editing technology has the potential to propel the next wave of medical advancement, though this progress comes with social responsibility. “I believe in the progress we can make in medicine, when it’s real and it alleviates suffering,” Halpern said during the discussion. “But one thing I’m worried it will do is create a whole new kind of injustice, where you have families gene edited to be unable to contract [certain diseases], [leaving out] those who can’t afford it.”