Arguably, no other field of scientific research has generated as much debate as genetic research. On one side, genetic research could potentially lead to the prevention and treatment of many health conditions such as cancer, asthma, hereditary disease, and even aging. Conversely, genetic research has raised valid concerns regarding eugenics, genetic discrimination, medical privacy, and legal ownership/access to genetic material. With these opposing aspects in mind, one can legitimately ask the question of whether genetic research has done more harm than good. In my opinion, genetic research has been, and will continue to be, beneficial to our society.
Basic research performed using simple bacteria and yeast has lead to the notion that segments of DNA arranged as genes contain the genetic blueprint for the construction of cellular components such as RNA and proteins necessary for the function of all living organisms. Variation in these genes is what separates a human from other organisms and also makes each human being unique. A desire to better understand genetic diversity helped to drive the start of an international scientific project called the Human Genome Project. The goal of this project is to identify every gene found in the human body. This research has the potential to revolutionize modern medicine. The ability to identify genes associated with certain medical conditions would allow for better diagnosis and treatment. To date, more than 50 new genetic diagnostic tests have been developed, with more to come.
In addition, current genetic research is providing scientists and physicians with the ability to determine whether a patient will respond well or poorly to a certain medicine. Pharmacogenetics is a new field of research focused on understanding how an individual's genes affect responses to medications. In the future, pharmacogenetics can be used by doctors to tailor the optimal dose for each patient to reduce, or even, prevent toxic side effects associated with some drugs. In addition, pharmacogenetics can be used to identify a drug that will work the best in an individual to combat cancer, infection, or other conditions.
Also, genetic research has lead to the concept of gene therapy for the treatment of inheritable diseases. Gene therapy involves the insertion of genes into an individual to replace copies of defective genes with functional ones. Although this technology is still in its infancy, gene therapy has been used successfully in a number of animal experiments modeling human illnesses such as Huntington's disease, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson's disease.
Although I firmly believe that genetic research has lead to a number of medical advances that promise to improve human health care, I will agree that such research has raised a number of ethical issues. These issues should be not be used to demonize genetic research, rather solutions to these issues need to come from meaningful public discussion. Efforts should be made to prevent discrimination of an individual based on their genetic profile. For example, individuals should not be denied employment or health coverage because they possess genes that increase the chance of contracting a certain disease. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was signed into law this year to prevent such discrimination.