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Genes and health

Ethics of gene therapy

Currently, gene therapy research is focussing on treating individual patients’ bone marrow or blood cells by inserting a normally functioning gene into the body to correct a genetic disorder.

Gene therapy involves making changes to the body’s set of basic instructions. This raises many unique ethical problems, such as:

  • How can “good” and “bad” uses of gene therapy be distinguished?
  • Who decides which traits are normal and which constitute a disability or disorder?Will the high costs of gene therapy make it available only to the wealthy?
  • Could the widespread use of gene therapy make society less accepting of people who are different?
  • Should people be allowed to use gene therapy to enhance basic human traits such as height, intelligence, or athletic ability?

This type of gene therapy only affects the cells of the body, and not the germ line cells (eggs and sperm). Therefore it is correctly referred to as somatic cell line therapy. Although the cells producing the altered proteins are changed by the therapy, the patient’s basic genome is unchanged. This means that this type of gene therapy cannot be passed on to the person’s children: they would still be at risk of inheriting the original condition.

However, gene therapy could be targeted to egg and sperm cells (germ cells), which would allow the inserted gene to be passed on to future generations. This approach is known as germ line gene therapy. It is controversial and not currently permitted under UK or US regulations.



What might be some additional ethical issues raised by germ line gene therapy?

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Think about each of these issues, and decide where you stand. Discuss each issue in a small group in your class. Present to the rest of the class your views, based on evidence and reasoning.