The Gene Tool Box
People who suffer from genetic diseases often feel a hopelessness that most people can’t fully appreciate. You can’t be cured from genetic diseases. If you have one, typically you’re born with it and you suffer with it all your life.
The difficulty is this: genetic diseases are caused by problems with a person’s DNA, and generally speaking, a person’s DNA remains fixed throughout life. Thus the sense of hopelessness.
But does it have to be this way? Recent advances in biotechnology suggest perhaps not.
For example, take beta thalassemia, a blood disorder that produces symptoms ranging from stunted growth to low energy to nausea. In its most severe forms, it requires monthly blood transfusions. The problem is found in the gene for the beta hemoglobin molecule—when it is defective, the blood cannot carry as much oxygen as the body needs. However, recent clinical trials indicate that it is possible to add a normal copy of the beta hemoglobin gene to defective blood cells, and thus potentially cure such sufferers for life.
This is one recent example of the promise of biotechnology. We also now have the ability to characterize a person’s genes, producing what has been called a “genetic fingerprint” for the individual. This technology has given crime scene investigators a new tool, helping to convict criminals and exonerate the innocent. It has also helped us verify family relationships (e.g., in paternity trials and in identifying human remains), and it has led to the development of new tests to diagnose a large number of genetic diseases.
Like all human endeavors, biotechnology needs to be guided by ethics, which in this case can be complex. But already this ...
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