Gene therapy is a subject that raises much debate in all areas of society: politics; religious circles; the legal field; as well as raising much public anger because of the many ethical issues. The revolutionary idea provides the opportunity to do some wonderful things in terms of curing currently incurable diseases but at the same time there are a number of concerns and issues in both the concept of gene therapy and the practice of gene therapy that make many question its benefits.
Here is a look at some of the many pros and cons of gene therapy:
- The most important factor in the development of gene therapy is the fact that, for genetic disorders, there is only one way of curing the disease – replacing the defective gene with a healthy copy – and therefore gene therapy is the only hope of finding cures for such disorders
- If gene therapy targets the reproductive cells of carriers of such genetic disorders as cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, or cancer, it is possible that any children the carrier goes on to have would be free of the defective gene and on a bigger scale the disease can be wiped out completely
- Gene therapy, when successful, can have a number of advantages over drug therapy such as providing a cure rather than easing the symptoms. These advantages are discussed in detail in the section ‘Advantages of Gene Therapy’.
Issues based on the science behind gene therapy:
- The current lack of knowledge and understanding of the treatment means that its safety is unknown. The current scientific understanding is based on theory rather than solid fact. This, however, can be improved with further research and practice.
- In clinical trials already carried out the effects of the treatment have only been short-lived. To achieve long term results much more research is needed.
- Drug therapy, although not offering the possibility of a cure, is a tried and tested method and is therefore deemed safer
- With current knowledge there is no guarantee that the vector carrying the healthy gene will end up in the specific place it is intended – there is a risk of causing even more damage to the genetic make-up that can result in severe consequences for the patient
Ethical, religious and moral issues:
- The intrusive nature of gene therapy means that we can discover information about our genetic make-up that some would say we are never meant to know. From genetic screening we can find out if we are at any significant risk of certain diseases. For some, this knowledge could have a negative impact on their lives and if that knowledge was to influence any life decisions in a negative way then it is questionable whether genetic screening is morally correct.
- Genetic screening can also be carried out on unborn babies – if this screening showed that a child was carrying a disease this may lead to the parents deciding to abort the child. This is clearly a very morally questionable act as many would argue that a person does not have the right to play God with another person’s life.
- Similarly, a couple who are aware of their genetic make-up and know that they’re both carriers of a specific genetic disorder may decide against having children to avoid passing on the defective gene. Again, many would argue that this goes against the natural order.
- Gene therapy has the potential to be misused – for instance the concept of “designer babies”, where specific genes are selected in order to create the perfect child, can be compared to Hitler’s attempts to create a superior race.
So, the cons of gene therapy in terms of quantity very clearly outweigh the pros. There are two very distinct arguments against gene therapy as it is understood today: the current knowledge is not nearly good enough to convince the world it is a safe and effective method of treatment; furthermore, gene therapy opens up a whole new world of knowledge in terms of knowing things about our bodies we were never meant to know and having the power to manipulate our bodies in ways we were never meant to be able.
Whether or not gene therapy is ethically correct is a multi-faceted argument. The cons speak volumes in raising some very uncomfortable ethical dilemmas. Nevertheless, gene therapy offers hope for the future that no other medical treatment can and for this reason we should not simply turn our backs on the idea.