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The History of Gene Therapy (Bio-Ethical Series, Part 1)

This is the first of a series of posts involving a fairly new concept within the realm of human development is gene therapy. Particularly the bioethics of gene therapy. Bioethics are the ethics or morality of acts within the biological and medical realm. Not what CAN we do, but SHOULD we do it? It is the right and wrong, the sin & the saint debate.

Gene therapy is manipulating the genome to treat or prevent disease. This is done through restoring normal gene function, destroying undesired cells (like cancer), or by creating new phenotypes by combining intraspecies or interspecies genes (1).

This post focuses on the history of gene therapy in regards to bioethics. I welcome the discussion that may follow from this series, as the nature of bioethics involves discussion.  Without discussion, bioethics can’t be addressed. That was problem with the 1975 Asilomar Conference.

With this new science of recombinant DNA, the 1975 Asilomar conference came about to discuss potential safety issues that have, or may arise. However, while discussing safety issues, the ethical issues were never addressed. The issues of recombinant DNA were defined as a technical problem. Larger ethical issues were all excluded. Scientists used this conference as a way of “avoiding governmental responses” so they could continue their work in this new exciting field.

The scientists wished to avoid public intervention by showing they could self regulate: protect lab workers, the public, and the environment on their own. They wanted free range to expand their professional goals. The good that came out of this was in order to show their ability to self regulate, scientists had to show they had safety in mind, protocols, etc. However, they stopped there. A persistent theme from tapes of the conference is worry by biologists about the public perceptions and political consequences. Nothing about ethics.

David Baltimore, one of the organizers of this conference, said “there were two huge issues staring them in the face, but this meeting won’t deal with either of these.” These were the ethics of gene therapy/genetic engineering and the possible use of this new science in bio warfare (Weiner, p.5).

For the most part this was a closed event. More than 140 scientists were there, a few reporters, and some lawyers. They didn’t allow the public into this publically funded event that discussed public health. So, take that information however you will, but that seems like a red flag.

There was a lot of effort to anticipate, assess, and reduce the potential safety hazards of their research, which is good. However, their idea of self-regulation didn’t exactly sit well with the public. The challenge to involve society in making choices about the uses and abuses of this science and where to draw the line were still not determined (2).

NEXT: The actual bio-ethical issues tangled in gene therapy.

(The above opinions are those of the contributor and do not reflect the opinions of EMS Wire).


  1. Kalthoff, K. “Human Gene Therapy.” Lecture Presented at BIO301C. Accessed September 26, 2016. http://www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/kalthoff/bio301c/powerpoints/301C_13wPres.pdf.
  2. Weiner, Charles. “Drawing the Line in Genetic Engineering: Self-Regulation and Public Participation.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44, no. 2 (2001): 208-20. Accessed September 26, 2016. doi:10.1353/pbm.2001.0039 at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/26055.


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Tim Cheves
Born in Tucson, AZ, Tim received a B.S. degree in Physiology (Pre-Med) with a minor in Pre-law at the University of Arizona. Here, he co-founded two UA chapter medical outreach clubs, served as a pre-health ambassador, became an R&D researcher, competed on UA's triathlon team, received the “Physiology Wildcat Award” in 2012, and graduated with honors.

In addition to three separate associates degrees, Tim became a nationally certified EMT in 2008 and continues to use his certification to this day. His work experience spans from physical therapy and nursing tech to the ER, donor organ procurement, and Search and Rescue.
As a self proclaimed grease monkey and gym rat, Tim enters his self re-built cars into shows and competes in bodybuilding competitions for fun.

Tim has been an instructor for EMS University since 2014, works at the UA as a biosafety officer, and now sets his sights on becoming a Physician Assistant.