What is gene therapy and genetic testing?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

gene therapy
In order to replace a bad gene, researchers use a “vector” to transport good genes into cells. Isn’t it amazing how complicated the mysteries of our body are?

Just last month, researchers from the University of Modena successfully treated a devastating skin disease using a process known as gene therapy. This is wonderful, because gene therapy can potentially be used to treat a number of other life-threatening diseases like cancer. However, you must be wondering what the heck gene therapy is and why it’s so great? We’ll get to that, but beforehand, you need understand a thing or two about the molecule known as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

Every cell inside our body contains DNA, which is essentially a set of instructions on how to build and maintain an organism. These cells die as we grow and need to be replaced.  In order to do this, they undergo mitosis – a process of reproducing cells and the DNA inside of them. Mitosis is a complex task, but the body usually manages it just fine.

However, an accidental mistake can sometimes mess up genes – small pieces of DNA. While altered DNA isn’t always big deal, other times it can create bad genes, which lead to serious medical conditions. Scientists have researched these conditions extensively (a ton) to understand what exactly causes bad genes to be so harmful. By having an idea of how certain diseases develop, they can possibly figure out a way to intervene, which is where gene therapy comes into the picture.

In gene therapy, doctors can change a person’s bad genes in order to cure them of a certain illness. This can be done by treating a person with medicine to either fix the mistake made in the gene, or completely replace it altogether. Part of gene therapy’s appeal is that it could very well replace the need for expensive medicine and surgeries. One of the most interesting aspects, however, is it may heal a person’s disease before they are even born!

Sometimes, DNA doesn’t have to be changed in order for a person to have bad genes; they might simply be born with it. Now, doctors can detect these genes in an unborn baby using a method known as genetic testing. Essentially, they harmlessly take some DNA from the baby and read the ‘instructions’ in search of any bad genes, including ones that cause devastating illnesses. If the medical experts find any, they can potentially use gene therapy to either fix or replace them while growing inside their mother’s bellies.

There is already promising research that has gone into gene therapy and genetic testing. However, the medical field is still far off from using it regularly in hospital settings until the method is absolutely foolproof.

Featured image courtesy of Micah Baldwin on Flickr.