A Designer Gene is defined as a gene that has been altered or created by the use of Genetic Engineering especially for use in gene therapy. Here Genetic Engineering refers to the use of biotechnology for direct manipulation of an organism’s genome. Genes are the basic unit of heredity found in the DNA on chromosomes of every cell’s nucleus in an organism.
The Basic Concept behind Designer Genes
The genetic code of human beings is far more complex than this. The three million base pairs in the human genome have been arranged in such a way that millions of sequences are formed and thousands of genes, each of which is responsible for some particular characteristic. Taking a gene from one organism and inserting it after modification into another is essentially a process of cutting and joining techniques and the introduction of different types of vectors that are available for cloning the designer gene.
Designer genes are most commonly used for treatment of hereditary disorders. This is done by replacing a defective gene of the organism with a new, modified and healthy one that has been produced through the knowledge of biotechnology or genetic engineering. A number of ways or techniques have been developed for correcting the mutated or dysfunctional gene. The most common technique involves inserting the normal gene into the genome and replacing the faulty one with it. Another approach involves isolating the faulty gene through cutting and splicing techniques and fixing it through different methods such as selective reverse mutation and thus making the isolated gene capable of playing its natural role and then returning this designer gene back into the genome of the organism using vectors or plasmids. The genes can be altered in a number of ways and research in this area continues. Viruses are commonly used as vectors which transplant the designer genes into the genome. Thus the viruses act as carrier molecules which transport therapeutic agents to the locations where they are needed. A number of different types of viruses have been used for this purpose such as the adenovirus, retrovirus and the herpes simplex virus. Scientists must first manipulate the genomes of the viruses to enable them to deliver designer genes without being rejected by the body’s immune system or causing any diseases in the body.
Besides such applications, designer genes also bring the promises of treating genetic disorders, or developing new organisms useful for pharmaceutical products and much more. To sum up, designer genes can help human beings in learning about human life, developing new and evolved life forms, treating chronic and previously incurable diseases, making new and improved pharmaceutical products and providing the world with a healthy lifestyle and environment.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Designer Genes
Designer Genes have enabled us to use products that alleviate illnesses that seemed incurable before, they have increased food yield and quality and have also had several other benefits on human lives and the ecosystem. For example, the first Designer Gene life form that was granted patent protection was introduced by Ananda Chakarbarty, who by using designer genes was able to engineer a bacterium strain that had the unique ability of digesting petroleum products. To this day, the bacterium is used to clean up oil spills around the world. Since then, the research on designer genes has come a long way and new innovations are made every day.
Designer genes have also helped in creating several processes and products useful for medicine, research and manufacturing. The treatment of the very common and widespread human disease, diabetes would not have been possible without the use of designer genes to produce insulin for such patients. Designer genes are now widely being used in Gene therapy to deliver the drugs directly to cancerous cells or to treat hereditary diseases.
Someday it may even be possible to produce designer genes that could selectively deliver genes to any particular part of the human body. This was not possible before due to the eliminatory actions of the liver which clears all foreign substances from the blood naturally. One gene therapy technique involves the insertion of designer genes into viruses that attack the body and inject the infected area with designer genes. A research team redesigned the adeno-associated virus in a way that it is no longer eliminated by the liver and instead it affects and treats the vascular endothelial cells in the body via the blood stream. Such research has helped researchers by enabling them to treat the highly complex systems such as the cardiovascular system through the use of gene therapy which was not possible earlier. As a result researchers may treat effectively several chronic diseases such as heart attacks, diabetes and cancer.
Similarly designer genes may be used to alter stem cells in a way so as to enable them to replace the damaged tissue and cells in the body. This research may enable the treatment of a wide range of conditions, including severe burns, heart failures, spinal injuries, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer’s and many more. Such cells can also be used in studies to get a better understanding of the events of human development and of how hereditary diseases develop.
Gene therapy offers great hope for patients suffering from Cystic Fibrosis (CF) since it focuses on eliminating the cause of CF by using designer genes rather than just treating the symptoms temporarily as the older treatments for CF do. Research on Gene therapy treatments for CF began in the early nineties and has come a long way since then. Several trials have proven the technique to be relatively safe and successful as it replaces the faulty CFTR gene with normal gene and gives patients the chance of living a healthy life.
The Genetically Modified (GM) foods are foods made from plants or animals which have had one or few of their genes modified. GM foods have enabled mankind to produce pest resistant and drought resistant crop species. The need for pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers has decreased while yields around the world have increased tremendously. In many European countries like The Netherlands, farmers were adversely affected from the usage of fertilizers and pesticides since their toxic salts were harming the soils and thus they were forced to switch to hydroponics and could no longer grow soil growing plants due to which their economy suffered. Designer gene technologies have aided many such farmers through development of pest resistant strains of crops that are able to resist harsh weather. The flavor-savor tomato and the golden rice are examples of such technologies already available in many markets.
Designer genes have also enabled humans to produce healthier and more productive farm animals that produce more meat, milk, wool, etc. These animals may also be made to be more resistant to diseases reducing the costs of vaccination.
It has been more than forty years since scientists began advancements in the fields of Gene therapy using designer genes but to date; no gene therapy has been successful enough to be made a common practice throughout the world and most are working on trial basis only. This is because such therapies take a long time to be perfected and to be declared entirely safe. Also because there is still much to learn about how the human body works at a molecular level. Even for the Cystic Fibrosis treatment discussed earlier, the treatment was found to be short lived as the designer gene was either turned off or resisted by the body and so the full potential of this treatment has not been exploited due to the associated risks and reluctance of volunteers for clinical trials.
When it comes to the use of designer genes in stem cell research, scientists don’t yet fully understand the complicated process of the differentiation of the various stem cells or that how many types of adult stem cells exist and where they may be found. An organism with a genetic disease could hypothetically be treated by designer gene therapy, and some improvements have already been made. One of the major drawback of this process that persists is that its very complicated as fixing a fully grown organism would mean the modification of the genetic makeup of all living cells which is far more difficult practically than it sounds.
Most genomes are extremely complex and so all the consequences of altering such a genome cannot be predicted yet. Similarly, it cannot be foreseen how a GM plant or animal will react to the environment and other organisms around it. One example which illustrates the risks of GM crops is the Bt-corn. This specie has genes from Bacillus thuringiensis in it that protects it against some diseases and prevents the need for using pesticides on it excessively. The corn was proven to be safe for consumption and introduced in the market but later research proved it to be toxic to the monarch butterfly population. This was an unpredicted and unanticipated problem that rose and proved how difficult it is to control altered genes and their spread in nature.
Evolution is also a similar and unpredictable phenomenon. Once a germ line has been altered with help of designer genes and introduced in the species then evolution takes over and matters are no longer in the hands of human beings. So knowing the effects of designer genes on future generations is not yet possible and interbreeding may lead to new and unknown diseases. Currently such research is based only on educated guesses and thus implications for future generations are not known for sure.
Many people around the world have lost their lives in the trial treatments using designer genes and this lead researchers to the belief that gene therapies might not just cause death but may also introduce harmful effects on the gene pool of patient. Though these may not necessarily result in death but they could have devastating consequences on the future generations.
Another drawback the designer genes have is of causing allergic reactions in people. The genetically modified plants and food products have often produced allergic and even toxic reactions in people. One reason is that people consuming such foods do not know their true components. Designer genes also risk the introduction of new forms of bacteria and viruses into food chains and making them more resistant to antibiotics. Thus the consumption of GM foods may be unhealthy for some people while in others it may even lead to death.
GM foods have caused a lot of controversy throughout the world. While those in favor of the applications of designer genes feel that GM foods will help feed the ever growing world populations, the critics feel that they should not be allowed to replace organic food and that they can never meet the requirements of human body truly. Researchers have even focused on producing single pills or small food packages which can meet the average calorie requirement of a persons daily routine. While critics argue that this would harm the balance of life and would be un natural and unethical. However the fact remains that the world population is growing at a fast rate and is expected to double in the next few decades. While on the other hand, deforestation, industrialization and the widespread pollution are decreasing the amount of land suitable for cultivation. Malnutrition and hunger are seen at large scale specially in third world countries and so there is a dire need to invest into alternative food sources.
The Golden rice seemed to be one such solution but even that has raised several concerns. As with Bt corn, the relation of modified plants with the environment and other species is not known. The golden rice were aimed at feeding the malnourished people around the world and overcoming the vitamin A deficiency around the world, especially in areas where rice were part of the staple diet and blindness or other diseases due to vitamin A deficiency were common. However they have not been very widely accepted by the people due to the ethical and environmental concerns.
Nevertheless, designer genes research is yet a relatively novel technology and there is still much time and space for development.
The ethical debate
The research in designer genes has been a controversial and a complex subject. The concerns are not simply limited to the benefits and drawbacks to human health and environment but extend far beyond these to whether it is right legally and morally to modify genes. This is because by producing designer genes and using them, researchers are actually taking over the work of nature and disturb the natural evolution procedure.
Until recently, the impact of designer genes to the loss of biodiversity was considered to be minor. But there is now much of theoretical as well as empirical evidence that using designer genes amongst animal populations raises their risks of getting extinct. The varieties of animals and plants that are found on Earth have their rights to existence and it is the duty of human beings to preserve them for future generations. Designer genes seem to be disturbing the natural balance of biodiversity and thus raise ethical debates.
Many people on Earth believe that life is a gift from God and that the body is the divine trust given to mankind which enables it to serve God. It is further believed that God has set limits on what human beings may do with their own bodies and with those surrounding them. Arguments suggest that the altering of life forms violates the will of God. Practical piety and reliable character are emphasized in connection with all professions. Although a researcher does not have to be a pious individual, neithertheless, religions lay great emphasis on virtues and obligations in connection with medical profession since medicine deals with the most valued aspect of existence, namely preservation of life on earth. The question of professional ethics is directly connected to a religious problem of the relationship between action and its impact upon human conscience. To state it briefly, human acts have a direct impact upon the development of conscience which is regarded as the source of determining the rightness or wrongness of human undertakings.
So many people around the world claim that production of designer genes is a misuse of man’s free will and defiance of God’s will.
The use of designer genes in gene therapies involves clinical trials which mean that for development of the treatment of a disease such as Cystic Fibrosis, volunteers would be required, who would be willing to undergo untested techniques with the hope of being cured. Such trials often result in side effects or even death of the volunteers. Though the volunteers agree to the trials from their own free will, critics find it unethical to use human beings in the place of laboratory animals and to risk the lives of several human beings for a single treatment which may or may not prove to be useful in the long run.
A critical summing up for the foregoing discussions show that even though designer genes may have far reaching impacts on human life and their environment, the impacts are not yet clearly known. Once the genetically modified organisms are released into the wild, they cannot be controlled easily again and neither can they be removed. It may take hundreds of years before their consequences can be fully known. These impacts will have their effects on several generations. Many researchers ignore these potentially devastating risks and continue with research which could change life on Earth as we know it. From an ethical point of view, it seems wrong to proceed with designer genes since humans do not have the right to destroy or alter other organisms for their own needs and destroy them in the process. If research into designer genes is to continue in the future then it must be along strict International guidelines that must be binding upon all researchers. Since several questions about designer genes remain unanswered, the public must have the choice to use their products and must be informed about the risks and benefits of any product of designer genes they choose to use. Considering the current debates and complications from the past, research on designer genes must proceed slowly following all codes of professional, religious and environmental ethics.