What is Gene Therapy?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Gene therapy holds promise for treating a number of diseases.
Gene therapy holds promise for treating a number of diseases.

Gene therapy is a way of inserting genes into a patient's cells and replacing the preexisting alleles, or gene variants, to perform some therapeutic function. It has been used thus far primarily to replace mutant defective genes, or alleles, with normal alleles, but could in theory be used to edit the human genome arbitrarily. If gene therapy were applied to reproductive cells in the gonads (the germline), these genetic changes would be heritable. This process has never been performed, but it has a name: germline genetic engineering.

Gene therapy has proven helpful in treating cystic fibrosis.
Gene therapy has proven helpful in treating cystic fibrosis.

Since the early 1980s, gene therapy has been used to produce medicines. Say that a human being needs a certain protein as a medicine. This therapy uses a viral vector, that is, a virus modified to contain the DNA to be introduced. Large quantities of the virus are injected to the target area, or, sometimes tissue is removed, infected with the virus, and then implanted again. The viruses are modified such that the vast majority are not capable of independent self-replication - providing little chance for pathogenic infection. The virus introduced the new DNA into the genome of human cells, much in the same way normal viruses introduce their own genetic material into human cells, hijacking the cellular machinery.

Cystic fibrosis is characterized by excessive mucus in the lungs.
Cystic fibrosis is characterized by excessive mucus in the lungs.

After the new DNA is integrated into the target cell, the cell begins to manufacture proteins specified by the new genetic material, which in some instances, can be lifesaving. For example, patients with severe diabetes may be given the cellular machinery to produce insulin, obviating the need for regular injections. The benefits of the therapy can last for weeks, months, or even years or a lifetime.

Gene therapy may help diabetics avoid insulin injections.
Gene therapy may help diabetics avoid insulin injections.

Gene therapy has been used successfully to treat inherited retinal disease, thalassaemia, cystic fibrosis, severe combined immunodeficiency, and some cancers. Medical miracles not possible with any other approach have been demonstrated by gene therapy, such as reprogramming the body's natural sentinels, T-cells, to attack cancer cells. Gene therapy shows promise for treating afflictions such as Huntington's disease and sickle cell anemia. As the therapy continues to mature, it could save millions of lives.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime InfoBloom contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime InfoBloom contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

anon67233

What is the point of gene therapy if you already know what your kid is going to look like and what personal traits it is going to have! It makes no sense to do that, it's like mini-cloning you, and that's no fun.

desertdunes

I wonder why gene therapy isn't used more often for people with diabetes and especially cancer.

Well I can understand cancer, it's probably only been successful on a few types. But there are so many people with diabetes, you'd think that a possible years worth (or life-time) of NO insulin injections would be worth the try. Maybe it's super expensive, or more likely not covered by insurance.

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    • Gene therapy holds promise for treating a number of diseases.
      By: Ljupco Smokovski
      Gene therapy holds promise for treating a number of diseases.
    • Gene therapy has proven helpful in treating cystic fibrosis.
      By: joshya
      Gene therapy has proven helpful in treating cystic fibrosis.
    • Cystic fibrosis is characterized by excessive mucus in the lungs.
      By: Andres Rodriguez
      Cystic fibrosis is characterized by excessive mucus in the lungs.
    • Gene therapy may help diabetics avoid insulin injections.
      By: Marcin Sadlowski
      Gene therapy may help diabetics avoid insulin injections.