Gene Therapy: Is the Human Desire for Perfection on a Collision Course with this New Technology?
Illustrated by OLIVER SMITH
What is perfection in the human body? Modern day medical practices are always striving to cure so-far incurable diseases. Today, genetics researchers talk about the potential for great innovations for the next generations. Gene therapy is the start of this revolutionizing innovation that could potentially be the cure to many of these diseases. Imagine being able to manipulate our own genes to eliminate genetic diseases such as cancer? Of course, people might define perfection beyond the absence of disease. Gene therapy could be used to enhance our natural abilities, or even to change a child’s eye or hair color by manipulating genes in the embryonic stage.
This raises the question: to what extent will humanity be directed towards perfecting the health of future generations? And who will be allowed to define perfection?
The concept of correcting our genome seems to be the hot topic in medical practices. Currently, targeted gene therapy is at start to a new era in the cure for certain chronic diseases and mutations where part of our genetic makeup in our body cells can be altered. Researchers are looking closely into this innovation and screening our entire genome to eradicate these illnesses from being passed onto the next generation. From genome mapping to gene therapy, we seek to narrow down our body to the genetic information observed on our DNA in our every cell. But while this pace in research inevitably accelerates, the fine sensitive line between therapy and enhancement gives rise to many questions about the direction of this innovation. What will happen to humanity when gene therapy in our reproductive cells becomes accessible to every individual, so that each one of us is given the power to choose the traits inherited in their future generations? In our quest to eradicate some viral illnesses, are we indirectly seeking to change the conventional world of distinct, biodiverse individuals and narrowing it down to what is conceived as perfection?
While the concept of this therapeutic treatment was introduced in 1960’s, the first breakthrough in gene therapy was marked by the clinical trial performed in 1990 in the United States. White blood cells from a patient diagnosed with ADA deficiency, a genetic disorder which develops into immunodeficiency, were removed and injected with a functioning copy of the gene. Subsequently, these targeted cells containing the normal genes were reinserted into the patient’s body to replace the mutant gene causing the disorder. For the most part, certain genes are the precursor to an inherited developing disorder. By modifying the dysfunctional gene in an individual’s body cell, it gives rise to the restorations of cells and expression of preferred traits.
Viruses turned out to be a key player in this innovation. One form of this therapy is done while the mutated gene is either removed completely, changed or repaired using what is called a “biological vector.” To change the gene inside the affected body cell, a virus that has been injected with the normal functional gene is inserted into the cell to penetrate and bind with our DNA . In simple terms, viruses were the lab rats of this therapy where a corrected version of the gene is inserted into the virus which then targets a specific cell. This vector then will bind this gene to one’s cells and will encode it instead of the mutated gene. This innovation, at its early stages, brought about genetically modified organisms, foods and various clinical trials to treat certain cancers and inheritable diseases such as Parkinson’s, Sickle-Cell Anemia and Cystic Fibrosis in patients. It displayed a promising innovation; however once again we ask the question where this treatment might lead us?
The use of gene therapy for mutations in the body cells has been shown in many treatments worldwide; however, germ-line cell gene therapy has never been performed on humans. It is the process of altering the genome in our reproductive cells to create a modified “zygote” or newly formed embryo. Within all the body cells of the newborn, the desired traits will be selected typically introducing genetic engineering of mankind. If this therapeutic treatment in sex cells is allowed, the appearances, behaviors and characters of the newborn all can be governed by the genes that were implemented in the therapy.
As of 1988, for the purposes of cancer research, the first patented genetically engineered Harvard Oncomouse was designed to be vulnerable to develop cancer through an injection in its embryonic state. This experiment showed that the genome could be successfully manipulated, opening the door to the possibility of manipulating the human genome to create a ‘designer’ child.
As theorized in the late 20th century, human genetic engineering can be compared to positive eugenics- a theory stating that the improvement of the human race is characterized by ‘encouraging the reproduction of individuals passing desirable inheritable traits exclusively’. (See below1) Eugenics, of course, was a popular theory in Nazi Germany, as well as in the United States and other Western countries at that time. Similarly to eugenic supporters’ beliefs, however, genetic engineering puts emphasis on the idea that intelligence, athletic ability, talents and attractiveness are reflected in our genes. As society potentially becomes more and more comfortable with the idea of genetic manipulation, we could become prone to return to the concept of eugenics.
Ironically, contrary to popular beliefs, genetically engineered humans are disabled in terms of their adaptation ability and survival. The process of correcting genes in one’s genome can alleviate certain illnesses from developing; however, this can also have the adverse consequence. In opposition to the impulse to “create perfection” seen in human genetic engineering technologies such as germ-line cell therapy, natural selection is a process where the frequencies of inherited traits in a given population correlate to the changes that occurred while adapting and surviving the changes in their surroundings. In other words, by disturbing this natural process, by artificially selecting and ‘correcting’ one’s genetic makeup, an individual can become more vulnerable, less adaptable to environmental changes which might not have an effect on a ‘normal’ being. The same could eventually be true of a species, if it loses its inherent biodiversity. What we think of as “perfect” might not be what will be needed in the future to for our species to survive and thrive. When going against nature, not only are we risking the health of this engineered ‘perfect’ individual, we are narrowing down any variations in the populations; only one form of humanity will emerge, those humans conceived, by us, as physically ‘perfect’.
As a breakthrough in medicine, gene therapy is still displaying promising treatments for our bodies to this day and is envisioned to improve over time. The controversy only stirs up, however, when we question how gene therapy in germ-line cells will affect humanity in various ways. The concept of genetically engineering humans only reflects how our perspectives of individuality have narrowed down to the concept of perfection. When we look at the greater picture, it displays a new form of discrimination, ascribing superiority to certain traits while dismissing others. With the knowledge and ability we are accumulating in the world of genetics, will we go too far by abstracting the laws of nature and heading towards a manufactured world of humanity?
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