Imagine a future in which technology and genetics have conquered disease. Doctors no longer have to prescribe medications for chronic ailments. Patients live pain and symptom free. The mental and physical health of society improves. People live longer, more fulfilling lives. Does it sound far-fetched? Thanks to gene therapy, a similar future is closer than many people think.
What is Gene Therapy?
Broadly defined, gene therapy is the treatment of disease through the transfer of genetic materials. The procedure began in the late 1980s as a way to treat cancer patients. Since then, it has treated everything from Parkinson’s to hemophilia. This therapy serves as a niche alternative to conventional drugs or surgery. Modern medicine administers treatments in several ways.
- Healthy copies of a gene replace the mutated copies
- Genetic material deactivates the mutated genes
- New genes fight a disease after introduction
Research shows that gene therapy effectively treats things such as certain cancers, viral infections, and inherited disorders.
A Controversial Treatment
Of genetic engineering and gene therapy, futurist James Lovelock once said, “I suspect any worries about genetic engineering may be unnecessary. Genetic mutations have always happened. Naturally, anyway.” Some find comfort in his certainty. Some fear his complacency. Considering the issues related to gene therapy, it’s not hard to understand why there exists controversy.
Though it promises to change medicine forever, gene therapy has inspired its fair share of critics. Studies show that it remains a risky option. The immune system can respond to the gene, causing inflammation. Genes may target unintended cells. Deactivated viruses have potential health concerns even after therapy. As a result, doctors currently only administer the treatment for diseases that have no other cures.
Gene therapy inspires a great deal of ethical controversy, as well. Rewriting genetic code raises many questions. What constitutes a “disease” or “disorder?” Will society discriminate against those considered “different?” What distinguishes “good” gene therapy from “bad?” While currently only used for treatment of specific diseases, some fear that the therapy could quickly become a method of genetic enhancement. Who decides what constitutes a “disease” or “disorder?” What happens when society begins controlling things like eye color, height, or intelligence?
The controversy doesn’t stop there. One of the most hotly contested arguments against gene therapy arises out of the use of stem cells. More specifically, the use of embryonic stem cells in administering therapy. Up until 2009, doctors relied on adult and cord blood stem cells for delivering treatment. These cells cannot as easily adapt to their genetic environments since they have gone through significant development. Embryonic stem cells, those derived from human embryos, hold the most promise for gene therapy. Given their adaptable nature, studies have proven them ideal for effective gene therapy. They need less manipulation to get the desired results. At the present time, use of embryonic stem cells remains a deeply divisive issue.
Another important aspect of the debate is the issue of financial availability. In its current state, gene therapy costs measure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those in the medical community have expressed concern that only the rich and the elite are able to afford the procedures. The emerging issue for healthcare professionals and scientists is making gene therapy available to all who need it.
Will Humans Conquer Disease?
Recent studies examining gene therapy via skin offer a promising glimpse into its future applications. Scientists believe this method could remove the risks associated with treatment. Human skin is the largest and most accessible organ of the body. Performing gene therapy through the skin is easy to transplant, track, and, if necessary, remove.
Private companies and public institutions make progress on treatments every day. Just this year, approval for gene therapy to treat leukemia represented a radical step forward. Adapting the treatment to cancers of the brain, lung, breast, prostate, and ovary comes next. Battling cancer in innovative new ways is clear evidence that humanity forges ahead in the fight against disease.
For now, gene therapy remains a developing part of the medical field. Many innovations and breakthroughs have occurred since wide use began 30 years ago. Amid the controversies, scientists and healthcare professionals agree that genetic techniques improve treatment of a wide range of diseases. Research continues. The field evolves. Trials succeed and fail. Humanity has not yet conquered disease. Yet, with gene therapy, eradication of major and debilitating illnesses could be possible.