January 3, 2018
Will Gene Therapy Take Hold in Medicine?
Every once in a while, something truly innovative and groundbreaking comes out in medicine. While there are advances all the time, these are truly game-changing. In recent years, that game changer has been stem cell therapy. But the next evolution in medicine may hold even more promise. That advance? Gene therapy.
After decades of trial and error, trying to figure out how to unlock the potential of gene therapy to actually create some clinical applications, it looks like doctors have found their breakthrough… or, at least the beginnings of one. The potential for gene therapy is thought to be nearly limitless. Some are saying it could literally help blind people see. But, is the consumer public ready for gene manipulation to become the next accepted form of medicine?
That question is currently up for debate. In the early stages of gene manipulation research, a young patient who received treatment died as a result of the experiments. That hurt the cause for many years, but researchers persisted, tweaking and working until, all of a sudden, there have been a string of incredible successes. Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, has gone on record as saying gene therapy could even be the long-awaited cure for cancer. And that’s just the beginning of the hope. Some are already looking beyond gene therapy to gene manipulation, which could be used as a preventative measure to keep people from getting sick or to keep diseases from growing and spreading.
Put in those terms, it sounds like an amazing breakthrough that everyone should be on board for. But, others are talking about this science in a different way. They are calling it “mad science fiction…” describing gene therapy in terms usually seen in Sci-Fi horror films about fringe researchers who set aside ethics in pursuit of their goals. From a PR perspective, this kind of cutting-edge medical science can be difficult or problematic. The natural progression can be one step forward and two steps back, especially in the early going. Eventually, after much trial and, yes, much error, breakthroughs can happen.
A lot of time can pass between failure and breakthrough, and a lot of “talk” can happen in that timeframe. Because of the constant news cycle and the lengthy nature of medical research, consumers – even those who try to pay attention – can end up missing things. Missed or misinformation can create fear, confusion, and other negative emotions.
Because of this, medical researchers need to do a better job being proactive about how they talk about their research with the general public. This is a lesson learned the hard way in regard to stem cell research. And, if they don’t try different tactics with gene therapy, we could be headed down a similar road.