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Human Genome Project
Scientists are taking medical technology to new heights as they race to map all of the genes in our body. There are about 100,000, in the 23 chromosomes of the human body. In doing this they hope that they can understand the basis of the genes and maybe even develop methods of treating certain genetic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Muscular Dystrophy. The scientists identify the DNA sequence of someone with the disease and then compare it to a person without the disease. By doing this they can recognize which gene is abnormal and causes the disease. This entire process is called the “Human Genome Project” and is being done in more than 200 laboratories, with more and more labs joining each year. Most of these labs are located in France and the United States. The project started in 1990 and was predicted to take 15 years and cost $3 billion. It costs the United States about $200 million per year. The $200 million per year has only covered about 60% of the annual need. This has created some funding problems for the project. On the brighter side the project has made huge steps in gene mapping and continues to improve every year.
Researchers have successfully located the gene and the DNA sequence that causes Huntington’s Disease. It is located on Chromosome 4. Scientists have created a genetic test, which can determine whether someone carries these genes or DNA pattern. Every child of someone with Huntington’s Disease has a 50% chance of inheriting the gene, which then inevitably leads to the disease. Because of the high amounts of money it costs for treatment of this disease insurance companies see this test as an opportunity to screen potential clients for the probability of such diseases. This would allow them to deny certain people insurance if they are at high risk. This puts the people being screen in a position where they might not be able to receive treatment for their illnesses because they won’t be able to get insurance. This is morally wrong and also violates the patients right to privacy. This information must be safeguarded from insurance companies so they will not be able to discriminate against someone with “bad genes”. These actions also bring up several ethical questions. “Does genetic testing constitute an invasion of privacy, and would it cause discrimination against those born with genetic deficiencies?
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Gene Therapy is one aspect that has greatly benefited from the gene mapping done in the Human Genome Project. It uses genetic engineering to treat genetic disorders. Gene mapping does this by introducing genes into existing cells to prevent or cure diseases. Most of the methods that have been developed are in experimental stages and have not been approved by the FDA. An example of gene therapy is the use of Herpes to treat a brain tumor. Scientists take a Herpes gene and splice it in to a nonvirulent virus.
Then the virus is placed in a lab animal to reproduce itself, and after reproduction, it is then injected into the human’s brain tumor. Because Viruses and liposomes have and uncanny ability to navigate through cell membranes it invades the tumor cells. Thus, the Herpes enzyme will make the tumor vulnerable to drugs used to cure herpes, killing the tumor, the virus and all the animal cells used to manufacture the virus.
With these and many other ideas springing out from the medical world, many researchers are optimistic about the results of their research. There is also a direct correlation of the sequencing of genes and the production of drugs to treat certain diseases that have strands of defective genes, such as Alzheimer’s. If scientists could locate the genes that cause these type of diseases then drugs can be developed to effect the specific location of the gene. The director of the gene therapy program at the University of Southern California, Dr. W French Anderson states, “Twenty years from now, gene therapy will have revolutionized medicine. Virtually every disease will have it as one of its treatments.” Such an impact would take much longer with trial and error tactics, rather than methodically mapping out the blueprint for the body.
This research is going to continue at a blazing speed. What people need to keep in mind is that the results of this research need to be use to benefit all of society, not just the people who are extremely wealthy. Also, the decision of being tested for certain genetic diseases should lie with that individual. Some people will not be able to handle the fact that they are destine to have a certain disease or genetic flaw.
Some states have already enacted law guarding the rights of individuals being genetically tested. The problem with these laws is that they only cover certain procedures not all of the testing. One solution to stop genetic testing by insurance companies is to make them give everyone in the country the same rate. This way they could not discriminate against people and it would put everyone on a level playing field. Another solution is to keep the information completely confidential. In doing this everyone will get a chance to get the proper treatment for whatever disease that they will inherit. Once genetic testing is mastered and becomes available for everyone insurance companies will start requiring people to be tested before they are given coverage. The government needs to put the necessary laws in place to stop this from happening. Just because an insurance company does not want to lose money on people who have “bad genes” does not mean they should be banned from coverage. What society and the people involved in Genetic testing, genetic mapping, and genetic engineering must remember is that the information they discover should be used to help mankind, not to profit economically.