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Ethical concerns

Beyond the health risks of gene therapy, the ability to genetically modify humans poses a number of ethical issues related to the limits of such “therapy.” While current research is focused on gene therapy for genetic diseases, scientists might one day apply these methods to manipulate other genetic traits not perceived as desirable. This raises questions such as:

  • Which genetic traits are worthy of being “corrected”?
  • Should gene therapy be used for cosmetic reasons or to enhance human abilities?
  • Should genetic manipulation be used to impart desirable traits to the unborn?
  • Is everyone entitled to gene therapy, or could the cost of gene therapy create new forms of social inequality?
  • Who should be responsible for regulating and policing inappropriate use of gene therapies?

The ability to alter reproductive cells using gene therapy could also generate new ethical dilemmas. To date, the various types of gene therapies have been targeted to somatic cells, the non-reproductive cells within the body. Because somatic cell traits are not inherited, any genetic changes accomplished by somatic-cell gene therapy would not be passed on to offspring. However, should scientists successfully introduce new genes to germ cells (eggs or sperm), the resulting traits could be passed on to offspring. This approach, called germ-line gene therapy , could potentially be used to combat heritable diseases, but it could also lead to unintended consequences for future generations. Moreover, there is the question of informed consent, because those impacted by germ-line gene therapy are unborn and therefore unable to choose whether they receive the therapy. For these reasons, the U.S. government does not currently fund research projects investigating germ-line gene therapies in humans.

Risky gene therapies

While there are currently no gene therapies on the market in the United States, many are in the pipeline and it is likely that some will eventually be approved. With recent advances in gene therapies targeting p53, a gene whose somatic cell mutations have been implicated in over 50% of human cancers, Zhen Wang and Yi Sun. “Targeting p53 for Novel Anticancer Therapy.” Translational Oncology 3 , no. 1 (2010): 1–12. cancer treatments through gene therapies could become much more widespread once they reach the commercial market.

Bringing any new therapy to market poses ethical questions that pit the expected benefits against the risks. How quickly should new therapies be brought to the market? How can we ensure that new therapies have been sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed to the public? The process by which new therapies are developed and approved complicates such questions, as those involved in the approval process are often under significant pressure to get a new therapy approved even in the face of significant risks.

To receive FDA approval for a new therapy, researchers must collect significant laboratory data from animal trials and submit an Investigational New Drug (IND) application to the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) . Following a 30-day waiting period during which the FDA reviews the IND, clinical trials involving human subjects may begin. If the FDA perceives a problem prior to or during the clinical trial, the FDA can order a “clinical hold” until any problems are addressed. During clinical trials, researchers collect and analyze data on the therapy’s effectiveness and safety, including any side effects observed. Once the therapy meets FDA standards for effectiveness and safety, the developers can submit a New Drug Application (NDA) that details how the therapy will be manufactured, packaged, monitored, and administered.

Because new gene therapies are frequently the result of many years (even decades) of laboratory and clinical research, they require a significant financial investment. By the time a therapy has reached the clinical trials stage, the financial stakes are high for pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders. This creates potential conflicts of interest that can sometimes affect the objective judgment of researchers, their funders, and even trial participants. The Jesse Gelsinger case (see Case in Point: Gene Therapy Gone Wrong ) is a classic example. Faced with a life-threatening disease and no reasonable treatments available, it is easy to see why a patient might be eager to participate in a clinical trial no matter the risks. It is also easy to see how a researcher might view the short-term risks for a small group of study participants as a small price to pay for the potential benefits of a game-changing new treatment.

Gelsinger’s death led to increased scrutiny of gene therapy, and subsequent negative outcomes of gene therapy have resulted in the temporary halting of clinical trials pending further investigation. For example, when children in France treated with gene therapy for SCID began to develop leukemia several years after treatment, the FDA temporarily stopped clinical trials of similar types of gene therapy occurring in the United States. Erika Check. “Gene Therapy: A Tragic Setback.” Nature 420 no. 6912 (2002): 116–118. Cases like these highlight the need for researchers and health professionals not only to value human well-being and patients’ rights over profitability, but also to maintain scientific objectivity when evaluating the risks and benefits of new therapies.

  • Why is gene therapy research so tightly regulated?
  • What is the main ethical concern associated with germ-line gene therapy?

Key concepts and summary

  • While gene therapy shows great promise for the treatment of genetic diseases, there are also significant risks involved.
  • There is considerable federal and local regulation of the development of gene therapies by pharmaceutical companies for use in humans.
  • Before gene therapy use can increase dramatically, there are many ethical issues that need to be addressed by the medical and research communities, politicians, and society at large.

Fill in the blank

_____________ is a common viral vector used in gene therapy for introducing a new gene into a specifically targeted cell type.

Adenovirus

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Short answer

Briefly describe the risks associated with somatic cell gene therapy.

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Questions & Answers

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