Gene Therapy

A recent article in Newsweek has piqued my interest in the current and future states of gene therapy. Considered the fourth revolution of medicine (sanitation systems, anesthesia, vaccines/antibiotics are the other three), it would seem we are on the threshold of an enormous change in the way illnesses are treated.

The Human Genome Project (HGP) is a 13-year international effort coordinated by the Department of Energy and the National Institue of Health. Their short term (5-year) goals are to identify all of the the 100,000 (give or take) genes in human DNA, determine the chemical bases that make up our DNA and analyze the data as well as address the surrounding issues of such an undertaking. This is no small feat, but with rapid technological advances the project is actually ahead of schedule.

There are two underlying strategies to gene therapy:

  1. Smart-drugs, which would seek out the faulty gene(s) and administer corrective medication for repair.
  2. Introducing healthy genes to replace/assist existing, weaker genes.

Amazing shit, if you ask me. Some medical professionals are estimating that doctors will be using gene therapy to fight serious maladies such as cancer and the AIDS virus within five to ten years. Make no mistake, though, GT does have its dangers and adversaries.

Consider: Scientists recently discovered a gene which seems to make mice more intelligent. The human genes that are apparently responsible for intelligence, body size, muscle mass and sexual preference have also been identified.

From Newsweek:

Good points, eh? What do you think?

Personally, I think that if someone would like to change something about themselves, even on the most basic level, it is their right to do so, providing that the technology exists, the person knows and is willing to take whatever risks are involved, and no person is harmed in the production or use of the technology.

If I want to have more raw intelligence, greater muscle mass, or thicker hair, that’s my business, and I should be allowed.

Is there a potential for abuse? As with everything from fire and the wheel to nuclear power and computers, yes.

Will it be abused? Of course it will.

Will more good come of it than harm? Yes, I believe so.


Remember, it’s only for those who can pay for it.

As these treatments - which on first glance are very expensive and yield great results - proliferate, we might look at the potential for human satisfaction that might come from assuring that their distribution is more equal.

Can we really be happy with a future where decreasing costs of production and increased efficiency’s benefits are not distributed more equitably? Most of the “have’s” will say yes. I got mine, I’m okay - human nature I guess.

Even distribution of wealth actually creates a larger middle class and is good for the economy overall (more total wealth - i.e., Japan where disparities in wealth are not so extreme, achieved incredible economic growth through this type of thesis).

Whether you agree or not, many in China see the presence of homelessness in the US as “proof” that our system doesn’t “work”. While not a proof that theirs does, I agree on this point.

Imagine the discovery of cold fusion or the like, which ultimately means power for all industrial and domestic needs could be virtually free. We could demand 10-20 work weeks for the tasks that need the human touch and everyone could have a comfortable existence with much free time. (The 40 hour work week is based on this idea).

The other version is that someone buys the patent for the process and charges 1 cent a kilowat hour less than the other sources, putting them out of business, accruing more wealth for themselves and transeferring a measly 1 cent a kilowattt hour “savings” to the populace.

Keep in mind with biotechnology, often the patentable substance is the property of another nation (i.e., the Andaman Islands genetic issue) and NOW we decide that protections to intellectual property are not as important as when we have finally stolen and patented the materials ourselves.

To make the point, the world of “Star Trek - TNG” (as boring as it looks) could never occur under our current economic system.

Communism? NO, democratic socialism? Perhaps. How about strongly represented INDIVIDUAL CITIZENS, rather than corporations, who I think sould only be able to vote in society to the degree that they have employees who can cast individual ballots.

Down with the WTO - no taxation (and legislation) without representation. NAFTA has INCREASED poverty in Mexico, and I suspect further WTO incursions and technology advancement without a check and balance will make the situation worse - i.e., disparity of wealth, which erodes democracy.

Why is this relevant to biotech and IT - these two technologies coupled with advances in brain science will create more efficiency andproductivity than ever seen before inhuman history - What do we really want to do with that wealth? Nose and boob jobs? The sad truth is that most people in the industrialized world who are well off complain like crazy about their pet problems (like Frued’s bourgois housewives). People who’re truly sufferring I think would show a degree of gratitude for improvement of their lot, that personally would be a joy for me to see.

I can see the plastic surgeons being unhappy with this.

However, I don’t see where it is particularly a bad thing - as Soulfrost said, there is potential for abuse and abuse will certainly occur. But I see no difference between using genes to change your appearance and having plastic surgery, which is certainly acceptable.

I’m assuming that the medical establishment/government will be responsible enough to restrict it’s use to those old enough to make such decisions for themselves, and not allow people to turn their children purple, or give their sons larger penises, for example.

What is a little scary is the thought of gene manipulation in the womb - while it certainly has benefits (correcting deformities before birth, etc.), I think the potential for abuse is much higher, as parents attempt to engineer their unborn children into ‘superhumans’.

Carpe diem - Seize the day
Carpe noctem - Seize the night
Carpe cerevisi - Seize the beer

Speaking as a molecular biologist who works in an institution that just dropped a massive chunk of change for form an Institute of Gene Therapy, I can tell first off that effective gene therapy is a long way away.

At best, gene therapy right now can replace missing or nonfunctional proteins for a short period of time using an engineered virus as a vector.

Also, note that at this stage in gene therapy, we can only supplement absent or inactive genes with active ones. We can’t go in and change DNA. That’s not gene therapy, per se.

It will almost assuredly one day provide solutions for some diseases for which there are none right now.

Gene therapy for plastic-surgery type things is even more of a pipe dream. I don’t think plasic surgeons have much to worry about at all. Many features of the human body are “locked-in”. No gene therapy can change the shape of your nose, even if we knew which genes affected nose shape. And even if chnging those genes didn’t effect other parts of your physiology.

Right now, gene therapy is best suited to curing diseases that are the result of a nonfunctioning human protein, like cystic fibrosis, and some types of hemophilia. Unfortunately the best results are very transient.

We are far far away from replacing specific genes to give a specific physiological effect. And even if we could, they would have to be done in the early embryonic stages of life to change things like intelligence, hair color and nose shape.

If I wanted smoke blown up my ass, I’d be at home with a pack of cigarettes and a short length of hose.

Coosa said - “I’m assuming that the medical establishment/government will be responsible enough to restrict it’s use to those old enough to make such decisions for themselves, and not allow people to turn their children purple, or give their sons larger penises, for example.”

It is already allowed, if indirectly, and not through gene therapy per se. Human growth hormone therapy is allowed for children who are considered short for their age. Some parents have presured physicians to offer this therapy for children who while not underdeveloped for their age, might be taller for the benefit of their parent’s wanting exceptional physical specimens.

One of the effects of growth hormone when used on boys is exceptional penis growth.

Gene therapy also allows for the slection of one sex over another. Hair and eye color is not far behind …

The future is here…