The Ethics of Gene Therapy
Francis Crick was quoted as saying, "We used to think that our fate was in our stars. Now we know that, in large measure, our fate is in our genes." Over 40 years ago, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). From this a new technique has evolved called gene therapy. Gene therapy was discovered in the 1980’s a few years after researchers were already able to isolate specific genes from DNA. These techniques matured from the massive surge of ideas generated during the Recombinant DNA (rDNA) era. Gene therapy is basically the repairing of genes to correct for diseases that result from a loss or change in our genetic material. It is hard to comprehend the total effects of gene therapy, because we do not know if it should really be used? Who does it really benefit? And ultimately people can easily contemplate how it affects him or herself and their family. Therefore, to understand gene therapy some technical aspects need to be discussed.
DNA is present in the nucleus of cells and is the genetic information of all organisms. The information of a human genome could be thought of in terms as an "encyclopedia", the 23 chromosome pairs would be "chapters", each gene a "sentence", three letter words "codons", which are spelled by each letter a "molecular nucleotide"--adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T) (Elmer-Dewitt, 1994). A gene acts as a blueprint and if these were blueprints for a house and the measurements were off by a foot, it has a huge influence on its total structure. This is the same for our bodies, if a slight alteration in our genetic information occurs like a mutation this could lead to a disease.
Detecting whether an individual has the capacity to develop a specific disease during their life and being able to link the disease to a specific chromosome and ultimately the gene responsible is done by genetic testing. Genetic testing is basically done by cutting a piece of DNA with restriction enzymes and inserting them into a plasmid and finally analyzing the gene. Once a gene is located and defined as the cause of the disease, scientists can then start to develop a plan of action for gene therapy.
There are three sequential steps to gene therapy: first, the partial removal of a patient’s cells, second, the introduction of normal, functional copies of the gene via vectors to replace defective cells in the patient, and finally, the reintroduction of the modified cells into the patient once the genes have been fixed in their vectors (Gardner et al. 1991).
According to Mulligan (1993), transfer of appropriate target cells is the first critical step in gene therapy. Many different methods of accomplishing gene delivery are available such as viral methods like retrovirus, adenovirus, adeno-associated virus, herpes virus, vaccinia virus, polio virus, sindbis and other RNA viruses. Nonviral methods like ligand-DNA...