A key experiment has been approved, but many researchers worry that slipping genes into humans is premature.

BETHESDA, MD.--Maybe W. French Anderson wouldn't be in the center of a slow-burning controversy if it weren't for the letters. But he can't escape them. Several times a week, new correspondence lands on his desk on the seventh floor of Building 10 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. The letters come from all across the United States and from dozens of foreign countries, and they are all heartrending. Written by the friends, families, and physicians of those stricken with genetic illness, they ask one question: When will gene therapy live up to its promise to cure genetic ills?

Motivated by scientific curiosity and ambition as well as by these appeals, Anderson is searching passionately for an answer. He wants to forge ahead with his research by actually inserting new genes into...

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