Genetic Engineering: It's Not FrankensteinAuthor: Hannah Murfet (PCQI, BSc). Quality and Regulatory Manager
Genetic engineering often faces unjustified bad press with regard to genetically modified crops, however genetic engineering continues to provide great promise for drug discovery, assessment and production. We must apply care and regulation to allow continued advances to focus of human treatment and not enhancement, science should not allow us to create a monster.
Genetic engineering put simply is the adjustment of the instructions of our cells, the smallest functional unit of life. The genome is the sequence of information required to code for an organism. this consists of a long code represented by 4 letters (G, A, T and C). The sequence of these letters codes for the proteins and how often they are produced. Changes in the coding of these 4 letters take a range of forms from single letter changes, insertions and duplications.
Genetic engineering is routinely applied in medical treatment, particularly with the mass production of human insulin in bacteria since 1982 (1). In this example the gene for insulin was inserted into bacteria, the bacteria then produce insulin protein which can then be purified for medicinal use. The future of this technology has continued with antibody therapy, where immune proteins are engineered and produced for targeted treatment of cancer and autoimmune disease.
Scientists are able to make use of changes in coding to further our understanding of disease models such as cancer, where changes in the 4 letters can lead to changes in the way our cells behave (2). Cell and animal models can be used in early stage drug trials to determine effectiveness and resistance.
The future of genetic engineering takes this a stage further to target the cells in our bodies. This technology makes use of a virus to insert a gene to treat disease where the coding defective, Glybera is the first drug of this kind to be recommended for approval (3). The cost of these therapies is currently high, but the field of genetic engineering is continuing to evolve and new technologies such as CRISPR are being adopted (4).
Right now all the work in this field is creating some positive enhancements for medicine. With careful control and regulation the prospects for drug development and treatment have massive potential, however we must take care of the ethical implications of genetic alteration, particularly anything that may lead to human enhancement - we certainly don't want to create any monsters!
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