All living things have genes. Genes are units located within the DNA that dictate which proteins an organism needs to operate. Genes also determine hereditary traits that are passed down to offspring from generation to generation. Gene therapy describes a medical procedure in which genes are added to an individual's cells, genes are altered, or in which genes are taken out. The most common uses of gene therapy include the treatment of diseases and viruses that can cause serious health complications.
When the uses of gene therapy are meant only to affect certain individuals, the therapy is known as "somatic" gene therapy. The use of gene therapy to affect offspring of the individual who is being treated is known as "germ line" gene therapy. Both kinds of therapy are heavily regulated in many countries all over the world and often occur only in research settings. Nevertheless, proponents of gene therapy posit that there are nearly limitless applications for gene therapy.
One of the most common uses of gene therapy involves the introduction of a healthy gene into an organism's cells in order to replace a gene known to be responsible for disease or other health complications. A common method for this kind of gene therapy involves using viruses to spread the healthy gene throughout the subject's body. Viruses are able to spread their own genes throughout an organism's cells. Gene therapy specialists can implant their healthy gene into the virus, thereby allowing the virus to spread the healthy gene throughout the diseased organism. A virus used in this kind of therapy is known as a vector.
Another of the common uses of gene therapy is to stop the genetic transmission of birth defects and hereditary diseases. In these methods, sperm or eggs in individuals are modified through the injection of DNA. Many societies have placed restrictions on this kind of gene therapy due to ethical concerns.
While there has been quite a bit of research and a number of experiments conducted on methods for treating illnesses, disorders, and diseases through gene therapy, it is not commonly used in most health centers. Some common uses of experimental gene therapy include the treatment of heart disease and HIV/AIDS. This kind of therapy is also used to increase the effectiveness of cells that destroy cancer cells and may even be used to cause cancer cells to become normal or healthy cells. In many cases, gene therapy is used in order to use the genes of bacteria and viruses as vaccinations.