Weighing the Pros and Cons of Gene Therapy

Engineering and therapy. Both very normal, harmless words with normal meanings. However, put the word “Genetic, or Gene” in front of them, then they become controversial. Genetic Engineering (GE) and Gene Therapy (GT) have caused a colossal outburst from a cross section of society in the past few decades. It is impossible to ignore. Why is it so controversial? Is it worth the risk and effort? Are we an improved species with it, or are we better off without it? There are many answers to these questions. A specific branch of GE, Gene Therapy, has countless ethical implications. The aim of this essay is to examine and evaluate the ethical, religious, and medical implications of gene therapy, and come to a valid conclusion.

To develop opinions on gene therapy, it is important to know and understand the composition of genetic engineering in it’s most basic form. What is genetic engineering? A formal definition describes genetic engineering as “the method of changing the inherited characteristics of an organism in a predetermined way by altering its genetic material.” (Microsoft Encarta 2006) The act of changing the genetic material of an organism has caused debate within many sections of society. People are either for GE, against it, or do not understand it/do not care. People involved in the argument on genetic engineering/gene therapy argue about whether it is beneficial to the human race, the animal kingdom, and the plant world. Gene Therapy, on the other hand, causes more human ethical issues. It is still an experimental science, and many people do not understand it.

Gene Therapy involves supplying a healthy, working gene to cells that either do not work properly, or do not work at all. The aim of gene therapy is to repair a genetic disorder or acquired disease. Gene Therapy can be generalised into two categories. The first is the alteration of germ cells, that is, sperm or eggs. This form of gene therapy has more ethical and literal implications as it permanently alters the genetic material of the whole organism, and it’s subsequent generations. This “germ line gene therapy” is considered to be unethical in human beings, simply because it interferes with the natural order of things. The second type of gene therapy is named “somatic cell gene therapy”. It is akin to an organ transplant. One or more specific tissues are targeted by direct treatment or by removal of the tissue, addition of the therapeutic gene or genes in the laboratory, and return of the treated cells to the patient. This form of gene therapy is less controversial simply because it does not permanently alter the genetic structure of the organism, and therefore cannot be passed on to future generations. (Genetic Revolution, McLeish, 2006)

Gene therapy took off in 1995 with the birth of the Human Genome Project. (Genetic Revolution, McLeish, 2006) This project discovered the sequence of letters (or bases) that make up the entire genetic code. It meant that people were able to fix’ faulty genes in humans. The project was not just a scientific affair, and did not involve just one nation. It included governments, medical charities and pharmaceutical companies from around the globe. The project revealed the protein that genes create. Understanding what protein the genes created gave scientists an idea of their function, and how that function affected the body. This meant that scientists could identify the faulty gene and attempt to create cures for genetic diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis.

Cystic Fibrosis is just one example of a genetically inherited disorder. Medical professionals and scientists have used gene therapy in an attempt to find a cure for this debilitating disease that affects 7,500 people in the UK, and around 75,000 people in the USA. It is clear that Cystic Fibrosis is a common genetic disorder. People with this disorder make too much thick mucus that gathers in the respiratory system, especially the lungs. Breathing is extremely difficult, and the lungs cannot sufficiently remove bacteria. This causes frequent and potentially dangerous infections. Cystic Fibrosis is caused by the absence of an enzyme due to a faulty gene. A certain gene therapy treatment available is a procedure that involves spraying the air passages with a genetically modified virus containing the normal gene. However, this poses problems, as the body may see this as an invasion and attack the very thing that is trying to help. (www.cysticfibrosis.com)

When Humans are involved with the conscious alteration of genetic material, there are always going to be huge implications. Naturally, there will be more pitfalls than benefits, especially at this experimental stage in gene therapy’s development. It is a mysterious and misunderstood branch of medical science, one that incites fear and anger into many people. There are a variety of specific benefits and pitfalls to gene therapy.

It can be argued that all forms of technology are unnatural. The computer, the television, and the mobile phone are all unnatural because humans have developed and engineered these technologies. They are not the result of nature; they are the direct result of learned human creation. On another note, Humans consistently manipulate nature and evolution in the form of selective breeding of animals. This benefits humans, and meets no ethical resistance. No technology is without risk. Cars cost the lives of tens of thousands of people around the world each year, yet people are prepared to accept that reality so they can get from A to B. Finally, who has the right to decide what is best for medical science? Is it the doctor, the patient, politicians, religious leaders or society as a whole? (The Gene Shifters, Newell, 1989)

Gene Therapy is not without its downfalls. There are media reports of gene therapy going terribly wrong. On September 17th, 1999, an 18 year old boy by the name of Jesse Gelsinger died as a direct result of his voluntary participation in a trial of gene therapy. Jesse had a rare genetic disorder called Ornithine Transcarbamylase Deficiency (OTC), which prevented his body from ridding itself of Ammonia. Jesse received a high dose of Adenovirus’. Scientists thought the worst symptom Jesse would experience was an inflammation of the Liver. The Adenovirus was injected into his bloodstream, resulting in multiple organ failure, and led to his death four days later. (www.newsweekly.com.au/articles/2000aug12_bio.html)

Gene Therapy is a largely untested science. It raises ethical, medical and religious issues. It has been reported that some forms of gene therapy have actually caused Cancer in some patients. Recently, almost thirty gene therapy trials in the USA were forced to a halt. The trials reportedly caused Leukaemia in two young boys. Before this was discovered, the actual test was hailed as one of the first remarkable successes in the field of gene therapy. The trials aimed to find a cure for X-chromosome-linked Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or X-SCID.

Additional downfalls of gene therapy include the fact that it is simply unnatural. Biotechnologists are playing with nature. Countless animals are mutilated and/or killed for experiments, where they experience great pain and suffering. Finally, animals are simply a poor model of human genetic diseases.

The basis for argument is there in black and white. As long as gene therapy and genetic engineering exist, all sectors of society will battle over it. It is not simply a case of “is it right or wrong?”, it’s a matter of understanding the subject thoroughly. Then it’s up to personal opinion to decide whether the world is a better place because of it. There will always be benefits. There will always be downsides too. The argument has no clear cut answers, as some people have been successfully treated by gene therapy. However, others have died as a result. The incidents where gene therapy goes wrong are covered more by the media than if gene therapy was a success. However, treatment is improving all the time, and so are success rates.