Gene therapy has become an exciting and controversial issue on the scientific and medical horizon. Science offers new technologies that, in the future, will be able to treat and cure common genetically passed diseases. However, as it is an extremely broad subject, some time must be dedicated to its interpretation and explanation. First, a general definition of gene therapy is required. Genethics, the Clash between the New Genetics and Human Values, by David T. Suzuki and Peter Knudtson, defines gene therapy as "the medical replacement or repair of defective or faulty genes in living human cells." It is not really so elementary as the definition would imply. Within gene therapy there lie certain aspects, some more controversial than others, some more achievable and probable than others. The ethical question must be addressed at each turn. However, all of this will be discussed at greater length subsequently.
There are two types of cells that can theoretically receive gene therapy. The first is the somatic cell, also called the body cell. This cell's lifetime is only as long as the life span of the individual patient. This is to say that whatever therapy performed on somatic cells is obsolete upon the death of the patient.
The second type of cell is the germ-line cell which is also known as the reproduction cell. These are not bound by human life but instead belong to lineages that may be immortal. Therefore, unlike the somatic cell, whatever therapy, successful or not, undergone by a germ-line cell will be passed on for generations.
Naturally a patient who undergoes somatic gene therapy takes on some great risks. The therapy is still new and in an experimental stage, thus there is no guarantee...
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...and that the "promise of gene therapy" is still intact. There is good reason to be optimistic.
1. Knudtson, Peter; Suzuki, David T. Genethics, the Clash between the New Genetics and Human Values. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1989.
2. Butler, Declan "Ethics treaty to target genome implications." Nature 29 September 1994: 369.
3. Butler, Declan "Pope condemns 'immoral' embryo research." Nature 6 April 1995: 489.
4. Benzinger, Dr. R. Personal Interview. 4 October 1995.
5. Leiden, Dr. Jeffrey M. "Gene therapy -- Promises, Pitfalls, and Prognosis." The New England Journal of Medicine 28 September 1995: 871-873.
6. Fletcher, Dr. John C. Introduction to the Virginia ELSI Project; "Preparing for the New Genetics: Education of Professionals. University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Virginia date unknown.
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