Gene therapy has been a controversial practice since its first use in 1980 by Martin Cline, it which he successfully transferred bone marrow genes on two subjects (Jacobs, 1980). Modern day trials using a ‘virus’ as a mother cell to transfer healthy/resistant genes between individuals. These trials aim to cure anything from aging and fatal diseases to that of more mild diseases like Choroideremia, which causes blindness and rapid deterioration of vison as an individual ages. Since that first procedure in 1980, over 2 300 more recorded operations have been performed, albeit it still remains a controversy due to the lack of testing compared to other scientific studies. Given the way that gene therapy procedures have been considered an unethical process by society, the question is often asked, is gene therapy an ethical solution for aging and other incurable diseases.
Choroideremia is an age-related disease that causes tunnel vision and in some cases blindness as one ages, with minor symptoms beginning in an individuals early teens. Affecting 1 in 50,000 people and accounting for roughly 4% of blindness, it causes major inconveniences of some peoples lives yet is still considered incurable (U.S National Library of Medicine, 2018). This was up until 2014 when a study was conducted in which six male patients were subject to gene therapy trails to help cure their blindness (MacLaren, 2014). With this, it was found that the two individuals with the lowest baseline had immense gains, increasing both 21 and 11 letters on a standard vision-test chart. The other four patients who had less-extreme symptoms, albeit still subject to Choroideremia, gained 1-3 letters on the same chart (MacLaren, 2014). These results provide a great future for gene therapy, and Professor Robert E. MacLaren also conclude that these results support the idea of gene therapy being used to cure Age-Related Macular Degeneration, another age-related disease that is a leading cause for legal blindness (Storey, 2014). Although both Choroideremia and Age-Related Macular Degeneration have had limited success from Lasik surgery (Storey, 2014) and similar methods, gene therapy provides a more accurate success rate and a promising future.
As of 2015, gene therapies first use directly against aging was recorded by the American experimental medicine organisation, BioViva. Telomere shortening is a natural process which occurs every time a cell divides or reproduces. Each time a cell under-goes one of these processes, the tips of the telomeres shorten, and once they get two short they are no longer able to reproduce. This is the main cause of age-related cell death and breakdown (T.A.Sciences, 2014). However, BioViva is attempting to reverse this process. The CEO of BioViva, Elizabeth Parish, was the subject of these trials, in which she was administered two separate medications, one of which prevented loss of muscle mass, and another to battle age-related diseases. Although this trial was meant to be only that, a trial, it achieved surprisingly hopeful results. Almost six months after the treatment Parish’s Telomeres were measure and it was seen that they had grown (Illustrated in Figure 1) 0.62kb (Kilo-Base Pairs), which is roughly the equivalent of reversing the age of her cells by 20 years (Bioviva, 2016). Although BioViva has stated that they will need to continue doing research until they are confident in these results, it provides a promising future for gene therapy, and means a more refined version of these medications may one day become available.
As mentioned previously, although gene therapy has a promising future for many individuals, it is still a major controversial topic. One of the most common points argued by individuals against gene therapy is that it isn’t an ethical process, especially when it comes to making someone live longer. For example, who would control the availability of the medications? Who would be able to gain access to them? Who decides who gets to live longer? (U.S National Library of Medicine, 2018), Questions like these have no solid answer as the processes are still in an early stage of development. One major concern is that in the early stages only the wealthy will have access to gene therapy such as the methods used by BioViva. And yet another concern is that at the current state the treatment will only be sourced from private companies, ultimately giving them a monopoly on the system. So, while it is still hard to discern the ethics of gene therapy given its early state of development, it is clear that unless the government is able to enforce regulations on the processes, it is highly possible that some form of monopoly on the system will be formed.
To conclude, gene therapy is a viable process for improving the quality of life for individuals with diseases such as Choroideremia, but the ethics are still questionable for companies such as BioViva who wish to increase one’s lifespan significantly. Procedures such as Martin Cline’s 1980 bone marrow therapy (Jacobs, 1980), to Professor Robert E. MacLaren’s 2014 vision therapy (MacLaren, 2014), are highly successful processes that only help the human species in ways that don’t put much questionability on the ethics. Finally, to be clear, it is believed that gene therapy should be a more common solution to improve one’s quality of life, but when it comes to extending one life past that of a natural lifespan the ethics become problematic, and a definitive future for their place in society is far from clear at this point in time.