Of worms and mankind: Identity reflected in genetic research

Identity 2/21/2018
Reading time: 2 minute(s)

Who are we? What can we yet become? Having decoded the human gene sequence, researchers are now dreaming of targeted gene optimization and new therapeutic possibilities. But at what price, nobody yet knows.

On the road to gene therapy: How stem cells work and grow must first be understood better

On the road to gene therapy: How stem cells work and grow must first be understood better.

In 1990, the Human Genome Project began with the ambitious goal of decoding our genetic makeup, then estimated to be based on some 100,000 genes. Today, almost 30 years later, we know that nature has encoded the characteristics of us human beings in only 30,000 genes – a number only slightly more than is the case with worms or flies. It came as a big surprise, for example, that the genetic sequence underlying the human nervous system is almost identical to that of the worm.

The small but subtle difference

What applies to the worm also applies among individual human beings. Although from a genetic perspective we are all more than 99 percent identical, our bodies respond differently to drugs, and show varying tendencies when it comes to susceptibility to certain diseases. Because of these differences, researchers hope to be able to treat diseases such as AIDS or cancer by means of genetic therapies.

Cancer relegated to the genes

Research is still far from being able to unambiguously identify individual genes as "cancer genes". But even when this knowledge becomes available, gene therapy will still touch on sensitive issues. Can the genetic material of a cancer cell be altered so that it dies or is recognized and destroyed by the immune system? How can the response of the immune system be anticipated and controlled? If we modify our genetic material, what consequences are we willing to accept in terms of subsequent diseases?

Europe on the path to gene therapy tourism

Soon the question will no longer be whether gene therapies are available, but in what scope – and in particular, where they will be offered. In Switzerland and many other countries, legal provisions are so strict today that stem cell therapies for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or multiple sclerosis are not permitted. So it is not surprising that some Swiss people with multiple sclerosis have already traveled abroad to undergo stem cell transplantation.

It appears that many people affected by these diseases are prepared to take health risks if no alternative therapies exist. This is why it is all the more important to inform patients openly about the opportunities as well as the dangers, and to promote the development of treatment methods in managed pathways. Only in this manner can the Human Genome Project live up to the high expectations it engendered as a scientific and historical turning point when it was announced in 1990.

This article on genetic research and gene therapy was contributed to our Wealth Management Magazine, issue no. 2/2017, addressing the theme “Creating Transparency".

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Who are we? What makes us matter? The question of our identity moves society; art, science, politics and every one of us seek answers. This research report on "Gene Therapy" is one of many contributions that illuminate the topic of identity from a new, inspiring perspective.