What role is gene therapy likely to play in the future? We speak with Professor Wolfgang Uckert, the president of the German Society for Gene Therapy, about the potential of the treatment.
DW: The idea of gene therapy has been around for decades, but has seen only limited success.Why?
Wolfgang Uckert: I think that one of the problems has been the transfer vector, which is used to bring a new gene into a cell. So from the beginning, these vectors were not really safe.
What is the risk associated with that?
The risk is that they integrate in our genome at the wrong place and then we have side effects and the side effects can be other diseases, like leukemia for instance.
That's a pretty heavy side effect. What can be done to minimize the risks or the side effects?
Yeah this already started years ago - to improve the vectors. Now we have a new generation of vectors which are really safe because they can integrate in the certain point of the genome at specific sequences and we have safety modules that are included in the vectors and the genetically modified cells and we can simply switch off the vector and can eliminate the cell.
Is that then leading to greater approval of gene therapy?
Yes, I think that will improve gene therapy very much.
Let's talk about some of the ethical issues surrounding gene therapy. What are they?
The ethical issues are that one has to select very well the disease which one wants to treat because this is a three-component system. You have to manipulate a cell, you have to transport a gene into the cell, and you have to make a vector choice and that has to be well-designed.
Where does gene therapy look the most promising? In curing which diseases specifically?
So we have seen this year: these monogenetic diseases, meaning that only one gene has to be corrected. This is relatively simple I would say: it's more challenging if we go to cancer, because cancer is a multi-factorial disease and many, many genes are included - and you have to cure each individual defect or gene.
Now, we asked for some commentary on our Facebook page and Alaku Alumbugu said he thinks gene therapy is ok, as long as it is only used for therapeutic purposes and nothing more. Could gene therapy technically be used to enhance certain features like our looks or intelligence rather than just cure diseases?
There is a little danger because we have growing knowledge of how things are organized in our body… what are the sequences. And we cannot completely exclude the idea of that happening.
Back to the ethical issue - that is definitely a question. Finally, what does the future for gene therapy look like?
I'm quite optimistic. I think that in a decade or two, many diseases will be cured by gene therapy.
So a positive outlook you're giving us?
Wolfgan Uckert, thank you very much for this discussion.
Interview: Meggin Leigh Doody