Gene Therapy: Ethical Issues
Germ Line Versus Somatic Cell Gene Therapy
Virtually all cells in the human body contain genes, making them potential targets for gene therapy. However, these cells can be divided into two major categories: germ line cells (which include sperm and eggs) and somatic cells. There are fundamental differences between these cell types, and these differences have profound ethical implications.
Gene therapy using germ line cells results in permanent changes that are passed down to subsequent generations. If done early in embryologic development, such as during preimplantation diagnosis and in vitro fertilization, the gene transfer could also occur in all cells of the developing embryo. The appeal of germ line gene therapy is its potential for offering a permanent therapeutic effect for all who inherit the target gene. Successful germ line therapies introduce the possibility of eliminating some diseases from a particular family, and ultimately from the population, forever. However, this also raises controversy. Some people view this type of therapy as unnatural, and liken it to "playing God." Others have concerns about the technical aspects. They worry that the genetic change propagated by germ line gene therapy may actually be deleterious and harmful, with the potential for unforeseen negative effects on future generations.
Somatic cells are nonreproductive. Somatic cell therapy is viewed as a more conservative, safer approach because it affects only the targeted cells in the patient, and is not passed on to future generations. In other words, the therapeutic effect ends with the individual who receives the therapy. However, this type of therapy presents unique problems of its own. Often the effects of somatic cell therapy are short-lived. Because the cells of most tissues ultimately die and are replaced by new cells, repeated treatments over the course of the individual's life span are required to maintain the therapeutic effect. Transporting the gene to the target cells or tissue is also problematic. Regardless of these difficulties, however, somatic cell gene therapy is appropriate and acceptable for many disorders, including cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, cancer, and certain infectious diseases. Clinicians can even perform this therapy in utero, potentially correcting or treating a life-threatening disorder that may significantly impair a baby's health or development if not treated before birth.