One of the looniest medical solutions I’ve come across recently has to do with some experimental work being done with the herpes virus for people with Parkinson’s disease (see Q & A, p 10). Since the herpes virus lives in the body of victims forever
All they needed to do was to chop out a few chunks of the virus’s “bad” DNA, insert some new chunks with genetic instructions for making dopamine, and there you have it: Frankenstein not only gets tamed but gets turned into the fairy prince in Snow White.
Gene therapy is very much the new frontier in medicine. Researchers are investigating interventions that would alter the DNA of your body in order to diagnose, prevent or treat genetic disorders. Scientists already believe they have identified the gene for breast cancer.
The problem isn’t simply medicine’s pie-in-the-sky intention of “editing” you and me and engineering all disease out of us. It’s all the ethical and privacy issues posed by this new knowledge.
Recently, a breakfast TV round table discussion I heard about addressed just these issues and all the implications of renewed plots to engineer a race of blue-eyed blonds. What, for instance, constitutes an incurable disease requiring abortion vs simply an unfortunate but acceptable defect allowed to live? What do you do, say, with dwarfs? And aren’t certain characteristics in the eye of the beholder? What one culture considers grounds for abortion may be considered highly desirable in another. Who, after all, is the judge of what constitutes a “bad” gene?
There are also the privacy issues. If spouses fall out, they can use knowledge of the other’s bad genes as a weapon to remove custody of children, to prevent them from remarrying (if, say, they have a gene for such illnesses as cystis fibrosis). Information about our genes in the wrong hands could stop us from having insurance or landing jobs, if it looks like we’re going to be dead before our time.
Aside from the gargantuan possibility for error, the trouble with gene therapy is, once again, the mistake of attempting to isolate ever smaller elements of the body as though they work in isolation, and ignoring that what we eat and feel has any bearing on our life. No matter how whizzy these techniques, the theory behind them is the same old cartesian clockwork view of the body, but now you are only as good as your genes. If only life and health were so simple and could be just a cut-and-paste job.