Bio-medical technology is one of the fastest growing industries of our modern science world. The study of human genetics is introducing many new processes, methods of research and various scientific sub-disciplines as topics of study, one of which is germ-line gene therapy.
Germ-line gene therapy is a process by which the genetic code of a human sex cell is altered to bring about desirable traits, like a particular hair colour or nose shape, and eliminate unwanted ones, like undesirable bone structure (for example, short bones resulting in a shorter population) from future generations.
Genetic engineering can be defined as “manipulating our genes in such a way as to make our bodies [structurally and functionally] better” (Arnold, 2). From the possibility of engineering the perfect designer baby to eliminating diseases that are passed down through genes, the future of gene therapy looks extremely fruitful. Everyday, new discoveries are being made in the world of human genetics but none of the research has yet been fully refined. The manipulation of genetic data, especially of the human sex cell, is an unethical, expensive and unsafe and should not be offered as a medical option to people in our society today, just yet.
We may be on the frontiers of genetic near-magical science, but we are still far from practising safely what GATTACA showed us would be possible in the future.
To alter the human genome, the set of genetic data that defines each of us biologically, is to drastically change what nature intended to be a particular way. This makes many ethical issues arise: Who are we to potentially change the basics of genetics of the entire human race? Do we have the right to play God? It would be somewhat unethical to give the future of our species in the hands of an individual – or group of people – who are geneticists and other professionals in this field of study; who knows how far they will go, and how we can stop their efforts if they attempt to misuse this power?
Once genetic engineering is introduced to the population, it can be dangerous “because once we start, going back is not an option” (Stock, 153). We, as a society present in this particular time period, don’t currently posses the right to change the face of the human race forever. Most of this can be attributed to the fact that this power – now seemingly realistic – is unrefined and under-researched.
Moreover, the processes carried out by genetic technology are ones to which it is difficult to put a cap. Where do we draw the line that limits how much of the human genome can be genetically altered before it is labelled ‘too much?’ It would be extremely challenging for authorities to regulate the processes of gene manipulation. The legal aspect that is required to make gene therapy available to the general public cannot keep up with the rate at which scientific developments in this discipline are racing.
Another argument stands that many people want to look into gene therapy as a healthcare option, but just because “there is widespread demand for something, does that mean it is right to do it?” (Stock, 156). Too many issues in connection with the ethics of offering and practicing germ-line gene therapy arise. Due to the lack of regulation and infrastructure to enforce legal rights around gene manipulation (which are yet to be established), it is not yet ready to be offered as a mainstream procedure.
In addition to being questionably ethical, germ-line gene therapy is a very expensive procedure. By offering germ-line gene therapy as a healthcare option, it would be creating divisions within our society (Stock, 163) as to who can afford this expensive procedure and who cannot. “Demand for genetic altering technologies [is, right now] by wealthy, well-informed customers” (Dixon, 1); the wealthy are the only segment of the world’s population that will be able to afford gene therapy. This is an unnecessary impending root cause for significant economic division of our society in terms of medicine and biotechnology already; this is a problem that can be avoided simply by refusing to offer germ-line gene therapy at this time, due to lack of widespread resources available to general public, as well as the earlier discussed point of advancement, refinement, and tried-and-true results of research in the field itself.
Money concerns the materialistic side of things, and although it is an important factor today which requires much of our attention, the humane aspect of most issues still holds more value. Germ-line gene therapy is much more risky, as compared to somatic cell gene therapy; somatic cell gene therapy is a less invasive process which, instead of altering sex cells, seeks to treat, revamp or repair existing broken or damaged somatic cells in the body. Unlike the extensive somatic cell gene therapy research available today, not enough research has been conducted about germ-line gene therapy that can credit it to be a reliable procedure.
“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any human gene therapy… current gene therapy is experimental and has not proven very successful in clinical trials” (Aiken, 1). Many developments are made each passing day in the field of human genetics, although it has been realized that “changes to our genetic legacy offered by germ-line gene therapy demand higher standards of certainty and safety” (Kahn).
Another concern of geneticists that is keeping germ-line gene therapy from becoming a widespread procedure deals with the long-term effects of germ-line gene therapy. The long-term effects of our present actions are not known, and they are difficult to predict with the limited research on hand. For all we know, “the same tools to destroy cancer and cure diabetes could also permanently alter the human race” (Dixon, 2). Are we ready for that? Instead of just jumping into it and releasing the procedure to the masses, perhaps it would be wise to wait on the studies conducted by researchers in this field so we can better anticipate the long-term effects, and complete a more wholesome risk-benefit analysis.
The Human Genome Project (HGP), started in 1990 by a group of scientists in the United States of America as a global initiative, held the following goals:
“identify all the approximately 20,000 – 25,000 genes in human DNA; determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA; store this information in databases; improve tools for data analysis; transfer related technologies to the private sector; [and] address the ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) that may arise from the project” (Aiken).
This project aimed to cover a broad range of sub-topics that are specific aspects related to human genetics. Although the HGP was completed in April 2003, unfortunately, it still has not provided us with enough results to be able to safely offer the practice of germ-line gene therapy to the mainstream public.
Germ-line gene therapy should not yet be offered because it is unethical to modify the human genome, and the process, itself, is far too expensive and perhaps thus far unsafe, due to lack of research and long-term conclusive findings in the field of human genetics. Although germ-line gene therapy has brilliant potential for doing wonders in the medical field and extrapolated theories are enchanting, the true mechanics of the human genetic code remain unknown to this day. As genetic research becomes more refined and genetic technologies become more thoroughly reliable, it may be possible, in terms of ethics, feasibility and safety, to offer germ-line gene therapy to the masses to eradicate disease, regenerate body tissues, and other medical functions; but until further research initiatives are taken, more clinical trials have proved successful and more conclusions are drawn in the booming field of human genetics, little can be taken away at this time about the possibilities of genetic engineering.
There is a long way to go till germ-line gene therapy can be offered readily to the masses. The future of this subject matter, both as a study and as a hands-on medical and biotechnological application, is fascinating and possibly fruitful.
Aiken, John. “Gene Therapy.” Oak Ridge National Laboratory. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. <http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources /Human_Genome/medicine/genetherapy.shtml>
Arnold, Paul. “Pros and Cons of Genetic Engineering in Humans.” Bright Hub. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <http://www.brighthub.com/science/genetics/articles/22210.aspx>
Dixon, Patrick. “New Medicine for Designer People.” Global Change. Web. 6 Jan. 2012. <http://www.globalchange.com/medicine2.htm>
Kahn, Jeffrey. “Ethics Matters” (Column). Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota: CNN Interactive. Danbury: Grolier, 1999. Print.
Stock, Gregory, and Sheryl Stolberg. “Topic 12: Is Germline Gene Therapy An Ethical Way To Reduce Disease?” Pro/Con Volume 17: New Science. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier, Scholastic Library Publishing, 2004. 152-163. Print.
Watson, James D., and Andrew Berry. DNA: the secret of life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.
This article was originally written in December 2011, following which many more developments have occurred in the field of human genetics, genetic engineering, and medical biotechnology in general. Any facts or arguments are based on information available at that time, and have not been updated to reference the most recent materials, studies, and articles available as of December 2015.