Gene therapy is a rapidly growing field of medicine in which genes are introduced into the body to treat diseases. Genes control heredity and provide the basic biological code for determining a cell's specific functions. Gene therapy seeks to provide genes that correct or supplant the disease-controlling functions of cells that are not, in essence, doing their job. Somatic gene therapy introduces therapeutic genes at the tissue or cellular level to treat a specific individual. Germ-line gene therapy inserts genes into reproductive cells or possibly into embryos to correct genetic defects that could be passed on to future generations. Initially conceived as an approach for treating inherited diseases, like cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease, the scope of potential gene therapies has grown to include treatments for cancers, arthritis, and infectious diseases. Although gene therapy testing in humans has advanced rapidly, many questions surround its use. For example, some scientists are concerned that the therapeutic genes themselves may cause disease. Others fear that germ-line gene therapy may be used to control human development in ways not connected with disease, like intelligence or appearance.
The biological basis of gene therapy
Gene therapy has grown out of the science of genetics or how heredity works. Scientists know that life begins in a cell, the basic building block of all multicellular organisms. Humans, for instance, are made up of trillions of cells, each performing a specific function. Within the cell's nucleus (the center part of a cell that regulates its chemical functions) are pairs of chromosomes. These threadlike structures are made up of a single molecule of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which carries the blueprint of life in the form of codes, or genes, that determine inherited characteristics.
A DNA molecule looks like two ladders with one of the sides taken off both and then twisted around each other. The rungs of these ladders meet (resulting in a spiral staircase-like structure) and are called base pairs. Base pairs are made up of nitrogen molecules and arranged in specific sequences. Millions of these base pairs, or sequences, can make up a single gene, specifically defined as a segment of the chromosome and DNA that contains certain hereditary information. The gene, or combination of genes formed by these base pairs ultimately direct an organism's growth and characteristics through the production of certain chemicals, primarily proteins, which carry out most of the body's chemical functions and biological reactions.
Scientists have long known that alterations in genes present within cells can cause inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, and hemophilia. Similarly, errors in the total number of chromosomes can cause conditions such as Down syndrome or Turner's syndrome. As the study of genetics advanced, however, scientists learned that an altered genetic sequence also can make people more susceptible to diseases, like atherosclerosis, cancer, and even schizophrenia. These diseases have a genetic component, but also are influenced by environmental factors (like diet and lifestyle). The objective of gene therapy is to treat diseases by introducing functional genes into the body to alter the cells involved in the disease process by either replacing missing genes or providing copies of functioning genes to replace nonfunctioning ones. The inserted genes can be naturally-occurring genes that produce the desired effect or may be genetically engineered (or altered) genes.
Scientists have known how to manipulate a gene's structure in the laboratory since the early 1970s through a process called gene splicing. The process involves removing a fragment of DNA containing the specific genetic sequence desired, then inserting it into the DNA of another gene. The resultant product is called recombinant DNA and the process is genetic engineering.
There are basically two types of gene therapy. Germ-line gene therapy introduces genes into reproductive cells (sperm and eggs) or someday possibly into embryos in hopes of correcting genetic abnormalities that could be passed on to future generations. Most of the current work in applying gene therapy, however, has been in the realm of somatic gene therapy. In this type of gene therapy, therapeutic genes are inserted into tissue or cells to produce a naturally occurring protein or substance that is lacking or not functioning correctly in an individual patient.