Talking about gene therapy

Hannah Partridge writes.

During a year’s placement at a pharmaceutical company I was amazed at the pace of genetic research, particularly into gene therapies (GT), where genetic material is introduced into patients to counteract or replace a malfunctioning gene with the hope of curing a disease. Whilst the researchers and a majority of the pharmaceutical workforce were excited about the prospect of GT reaching the public, others were more sceptical. In one particular conversation, I recall being told that for some, there remains a fear around the manipulation of genes. It was joked, although a true belief of some, that potential side effects of GT could result in ‘Hulk-like’ humans.

Is it possible that GT holds the key to many current issues facing medicine, including the lack of viable treatments for severe or rare diseases, and the financial strain of regular hospital visits? If so, are divided public attitudes stalling or hindering the progression of GT in the medical field? It was this conversation, and these questions, that sparked my interest in studying how people feel about a potential ‘genetic revolution’ in medicine.

As a result, I dedicated my final year project to researching attitudes and perceptions towards GT. I found high support for GT but also some significant concerns around potential ‘adverse effects’ of treatment, and ‘not receiving all the information’. This highlights the possibility that the pace of public education has failed to keep up with genetic technological advancement.

With the number of GTs approved for use in the European Union currently standing at eight according to the European Medicines Agency, and genetic technologies increasingly integrated into the NHS, the demand on the public to have genetic literacy is the highest it’s ever been. I hope that more research will be conducted to study attitudes towards GT, to understand how the change in medical landscape is affecting the thoughts and feelings of those accessing it.

I am interested to know what others think. Will GT will be a revolution in medicine; accepted and valued as a cure for disease, or will it be rejected, where concerns about the potential impacts are the dominating factor?

Hannah Partridge
Assistant Psychologist
Greater Manchester NHS service

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