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Gene therapy, the process of inserting a gene into an organism to replace or repair gene function to treat a disease or genetic defect, has made headlines world wide over the past several years as the new cutting edge technique that has the potential to change the way we look at medicine and treat people. Gene therapy is a method of treating inherited diseases by inserting copies of genes into the cells of affected individuals. The current research on gene therapy has centered on targeting somatic cells, such as red blood cells and nerve cells. Another approach, called germ-line gene therapy, would insert new genes into egg cells, sperm cells, or even developing embryos. These genetic modifications would be passed on to future generations.10
The ability to alter genes bestows upon humanity incredible power. With gene therapy, diseases will be able to be treated before children are even born. However, with such treatment, a slippery slope is not far off. If it is considered good to treat a fetus with genetic defects in utero, then it is not a large logical leap to allow a couple to engineer the “perfect” child that they have always dreamed about having.
With the dawn of designer children, the control of evolution could be in the hands of those willing to pay for it. As disparities in healthcare continue to grow, those who could not afford gene therapy could become marginalized, and humanity could witness the establishment of a genetic elite.
The potential for new forms of genetic discrimination is also great. The gene pool could be systematically cleansed of traits deemed undesirable.
Is it ethical to tamper with an individual's set of genetic instructions? If so, where do we draw the line?9
In the fall of 1999, the ethical issues surrounding gene therapy came to the forefront of the field with the first death of a gene therapy patient, Jesse Gelsinger.1 Gene therapy may contain inherent dangers that are not always obvious at first glance, as was illustrated more recently in a gene therapy trial involving SCIDs victims. Consequently, several new standards for gene therapy have been put into place regulating gene transfer trials to improve patient safety.
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We now stand at the doorway of a new era of medicine, one that has the power to change our lives and the lives of future generations more than any that has come before. Scientists are developing ways to alter the very blueprints of our physical being to establish new treatments and cures. However, such advances do not come without risks, and with the death of Jesse Gelsinger, we mark the price of progress. Looking toward the future, we might ask if gene therapy will lead to a society of eugenics and racism, or if we will use this technology to usher in a new age of health and well being. As we proceed down this unexplored path of opportunity and peril, let us remember that we have the ability and the responsibility to ensure that such power is used wisely.