What is human-based genetic engineering?
In order to understand human genetic engineering, here is a definition of a human gene: A human gene is a specific sequence of DNA molecules in the nuclei of living human cells that owes itself to creating a certain code or characteristic in a specific part of the body (an example of this would be: the genes found in the liver cells - hepatocytes - will be responsible for the unique functioning of the liver organ).
It is therefore clear to deduce that 'human genetic engineering' is the physical manipulation of genes in order to create favourable characteristics in various parts of the human body. This is therefore external interference with our internal gene structures. It is done by professionals of the field in expensive laboratories.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Possible positives of genetic engineering:
Often used in gene therapy: Curing of genetic/hereditary diseases that people inherit from past generation's DNA heredities. It can also be used to cure viral diseases (possibly HIV/AIDS - which this research task will analyse)
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Allows for living organisms to acquire desirable/favourable traits that will benefit the environment and the functioning of other living organisms.
Possible negatives of genetic engineering:
It is one of the most controversial topics in the medical field, in terms of the moral and ethical issues that can be raised. This is often linked to religious beliefs (e.g. human cloning is widely frowned upon amongst a wide variety of religions and has become forbidden by legislative laws globally).
The cost of the process is astronomical. The parties involved in the process have to acquire large sums of money due to this high cost.
Having stated the basics about genetic engineering above, the focus of this research project is on the HIV/AIDS virus.
How does the HIV/AIDS virus affect our DNA?
The theory of a virus is that is a pathogen that replicates its own viral DNA inside the host cell and replaces the original DNA of the cell. HIV/AIDS does exactly this. The HIV virus works specifically on the CD4 cells (killer T cells) in our blood that are functioned to fight off many types of viruses and provide humans with natural immunity.
In order for the HIV virus to successfully enter these killer T cells, these cells need to have a certain base surface protein called CCR5 - the protein that is necessary for the HIV virus to bond to the surface of the cell.
Here is a diagram that represents the replication cycle of the HIV virus and how dependent it is on the protein CCR5 to bond to the normal CD4 killer T cells:
Reference: http://www.aegis.com/topics/basics/hivandaids.html , Date accessed: 3 March 2011
Research has shown that there are a certain percentage of people who are technically immune to the HIV virus owing to the fact that they were born without their killer T and bone marrow cells having this CCR5 protein. This percentage was revealed to be relatively small and the proof of this is, quite simply, the HIV virus has become a worldwide epidemic and hence, this anti-CCR5 gene is considered a minority in human populations.
The question that has therefore arisen for many stem cell researchers at medical faculties of universities globally, is this: Is it possible for this anti-CCR5 gene type to be extracted from the blood and bone marrow stem cells of these HIV-immune minorities and transplanted in HIV positive patients, in an attempt to make these genes mutate in the patient and eventually replace his/her blood cells with these HIV-immune antibodies?
Just recently, this question has been answered...
The German - Dr. Gero Hütter
According to the case study (at reference 1.3), the German doctor - Gero Hütter - achieved the "first functional cure for HIV/AIDS". He transplanted bone marrow stem cells into a leukaemia infected American patient (who also was HIV positive) acquired from a person who turned out to be HIV-immune (had no CCR5 surface proteins on his immunity cells). After the operation was completed, the patient is still fighting off the leukaemia but miraculously, he is tested as HIV negative (free of HIV)
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The proof that this is indeed a functional cure for HIV/AIDS is that the patient has undergone various tests for approximately 20 months (after the transplant) which show no trace of the HIV virus in his body. He has ceased to take his antiretroviral drugs (which merely stop virus replication). This means that the virus has not stayed dormant in his DNA but is actually eliminated.
Personal Analysis of Hütter's functional cure
It is clear to deduce that Hütter's genetic engineering accomplishment has proven to be a likely cure for HIV/AIDS.
It is a groundbreaking medical discovery that occurred indirectly and spontaneously. (Hütter was not aiming on creating a cure for HIV, it occurred as a by-result from the stem cell transplant - originally meant to cure the leukaemia in the patient).
However, there are always disadvantages to accompany the advantages. Below is a table that shows the pros and cons of genetic engineering (blood stem cell transplants) to cure HIV/AIDS:
It is possible for the anti-CCR5 gene to be mutated and could work as a cure for many other HIV positive patients looking to be cured.
The process is still incomplete - there are various medical tests that still need to be done in order for it to be dubbed: A scientifically approved and available medical cure.
An HIV positive patient can stop taking their antiretroviral drugs with immediate effect.
The patient that was cured had leukaemia. Will the stem cell transplant work for someone without this disease? Is it a universal cure for all HIV patients regardless of other diseases that are caused by HIV/AIDS?
Unlike other proposed "cures" for the HIV virus, (e.g. circumcision), this cure works on the direct source that the HIV works on (the chromosomal DNA in the CD8 cells).
The cost of gene therapy (in this case, stem cell transplants) is very high and could be ineffective due to the affordability of the the cure.
After the discovery of gene therapy as a possible cure for the HIV/AIDS virus, scientists, HIV specialists, biologists, medical researchers and doctors have begun extensive testing to accurately analyse all the functional faults that could arise and what still needs to be changed and edited.
I personally believe that this genetic train of thought is the most promising and encouraging possibility of a cure. Antiretroviral drugs are a pathway leading to an endless dependence on pills to stay alive. They are merely mechanisms to keep HIV positive people living longer. In fact, they anyway cause harmful side effects that will eventually cause the inevitable mortality of the people succumb to the virus.
The hopes for a cure has been show new light, but not approved just yet.
I believe that if researchers somehow find a way to patent the cure and make it easily accessible and affordable to all countries (even third world countries in Africa who have weaker economies), the epidemic could start deteriorating in expanse.
Below are other facets that need to be achieved in order for the cure to be patented:
Medical safety for administering the cure must be of high priority. A large number and variety of test subjects (people who want to be cured of their HIV, regardless of the risk of the transplant) need to be used by medical organisations to analyse the probability of the success of the cure.
The time taken for the new HIV-immune cells to replace/ " wash out" the HIV infected cells must somehow be reduced and the cure should be made immediately or shortly effective. If not, the cure could take years and would not affect HIV mortality rates in an effective enough manner.
Advancements in genetic engineering technologies could make it simpler and easier to provide stem cell transplants cheaply and more frequently. Technology has been responsible for many medical miracles. This should not be counted out and this should be further investigated.
This will all probably take years and years to achieve, but there is a sign of hope to finally someday rid the world of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
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