Friday, May 8, 2009

Understanding Gene Therapy

Gene therapy has become an increasingly important topic in science-related news. The basic concept of gene therapy is to introduce a gene with the capacity to cure or prevent the progression of a disease. Gene therapy introduces a normal, functional copy of a gene into a cell in which that gene is defective. Cells, tissue, or even whole individuals (when germ-line cell therapy becomes available) modified by gene therapy are considered to be transgenic or genetically modified. Gene therapy could eventually target the correction of genetic defects, eliminate cancerous cells, prevent cardiovascular diseases, block neurological disorders, and even eliminate infectious pathogens. However, gene therapy should be distinguished from the use of genomics to discover new drugs and diagnosis techniques, although the two are related in some respects. The two main types of gene therapy are somatic cell gene therapy and reproductive or germ-line gene therapy. This chapter also discusses therapeutic cloning, which involves stem cell manipulation for tissue and organ production.

Germ-line cell therapy involves the introduction of corrective genes into reproductive cells (sperm and eggs) or zygotes, with the objective of creating a beneficial genetic change that is transmitted to the offspring. When genes are introduced in a reproductive cell, descendant cells can inherit the genes.

Gene therapy of somatic cells, those not directly related to reproduction, results in changes that are not transmitted to offspring. An example of gene therapy in somatic cells is the introduction of genes in an organ or tissue to induce the production of an enzyme. This alteration does not affect the individual's genetic makeup as a whole and it is not transmitted to its descendants. With somatic cell gene therapy, a disabled organ is better able to function normally. This technology has many applications to human health. One variant of somatic cell gene therapy is DNA vaccines, which allow cells of the immune system to fight certain diseases in a method similar to conventional vaccines.

Stem cell therapy involves the use of pluripotent cells, or cells that can differentiate into any other cell type. Stem cells are found in developing embryos and in some tissues of adult individuals. This therapy is similar to a conventional transplant, with the objective of regenerating or repairing a damaged organ or tissue. The procedure has a reduced probability of rejection because it uses the individual's own cells. For instance, stem cells differentiated into nerve cells could be used by patients suffering from paralysis, with the goal of helping them recovering movement; or in cases of heart stroke, muscle cells might be used to rejuvenate the cardiac muscles. Furthermore, the future may bring the growth of stem cells from an individual's body to produce certain tissues or organs in vitro. Stem cell research could eventually blend gene therapy with genetic engineering to create healthy stem cells that can be used to generate healthy organs and tissue.

A fundamental requirement for gene therapy is the correct identification of genes coding for diseases. This can be accomplished at a spectacular speed with the information from the Human Genome Project. Scientific magazines have been announcing, with great frequency, the discovery of genes responsible for several medical conditions, from Alzheimer's disease to baldness. The knowledge of the genes involved in these traits allows unequivocal diagnosis of the disease in the patient, an essential step before treatment can be initiated for the genetic disease. Biotechnology is contributing to the development of the needed genetic tests for detection of defective genes.
The most complex phase in gene therapy is the development of mechanisms to deliver the therapeutic genes to the target organ in an accurate, controlled, and effective way. That step has been developing more slowly and is currently the most limiting factor for gene therapy.

Tags: Bio Technology, Bio Genetics, Gene Therapy

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