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What are the ethical issues surrounding gene therapy?

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Because gene therapy involves making changes to the body’s set of basic instructions, it raises many unique ethical concerns. The ethical questions surrounding gene therapy include:

  • How can “good” and “bad” uses of gene therapy be distinguished?

  • Who decides which traits are normal and which constitute a disability or disorder?

  • Will the high costs of gene therapy make it available only to the wealthy?

  • Could the widespread use of gene therapy make society less accepting of people who are different?

  • Should people be allowed to use gene therapy to enhance basic human traits such as height, intelligence, or athletic ability?

Current gene therapy research has focused on treating individuals by targeting the therapy to body cells such as bone marrow or blood cells. This type of gene therapy cannot be passed on to a person’s children. Gene therapy could be targeted to egg and sperm cells (germ cells), however, which would allow the inserted gene to be passed on to future generations. This approach is known as germline gene therapy.

The idea of germline gene therapy is controversial. While it could spare future generations in a family from having a particular genetic disorder, it might affect the development of a fetus in unexpected ways or have long-term side effects that are not yet known. Because people who would be affected by germline gene therapy are not yet born, they can’t choose whether to have the treatment. Because of these ethical concerns, the U.S. Government does not allow federal funds to be used for research on germline gene therapy in people.

For more information about the ethical issues raised by gene therapy:

The Genetics and Public Policy Center outlines scientific issues and ethical concerns regarding gene therapyThis link leads to a site outside Genetics Home Reference..

The National Human Genome Research Institute discusses scientific issues and ethical concerns surrounding germline gene therapyThis link leads to a site outside Genetics Home Reference..

A discussion of the ethics of gene therapy and genetic enhancementThis link leads to a site outside Genetics Home Reference. is available from the University of Missouri Center for Health Ethics.


Next: Is gene therapy available to treat my disorder?

 
Published: April 17, 2014