View gene therapy as a medical advancement

I agree with Mr Darius Lee (Gene editing will create more divisions in society; March 3) that gene editing should not be used to promote eugenics.

However, gene editing to cure or ameliorate genetic diseases should be viewed as a form of medical advancement, akin to any medical breakthrough in the form of drugs or surgery.

Recently, it was reported that a teenage boy with sickle-cell anaemia was cured of the disease using gene therapy.

Presently, such patients are treated with blood transfusions to clear the blockages caused by abnormal haemoglobin, and have to be on powerful painkillers to manage the painful symptoms. Bone marrow transplants are also used to treat the disease, but finding matching donors can be difficult.

Many other genetic illnesses also exact a grave personal and financial toll on patients and their families.

Besides improving the quality of life for sufferers, gene therapy may also prove to be much less costly in the long term, as sufferers do not need to undergo further treatment.

It can be argued that gene therapy may be accessible only to patients in well-developed medical systems, thus potentially exacerbating the divisions between the "haves" and "have-nots".

But, just as we do not use this as a reason to withhold conventional medical treatment, so we should not condemn those with hereditary illnesses to life-long suffering if gene therapy is available to them.

It behooves society to make such treatments accessible to as many as people possible.

We may also already be"editing" our children's genetic potential with our lifestyle and behavioural choices, such as diet and smoking, as these factors may cause epigenetic modifications.

Studies have found that men who were smokers from an early age had sons who were significantly fatter than average.

Researchers who analysed historical records from a remote part of Sweden found that people whose grandparents had been short of food between the ages of nine and 12 seemed to live longer.

Whether intentionally or not, people have been subjected to varying forms of genetic modifications since time immemorial.

It is only right that gene editing be viewed as just another form of medical treatment to cure illnesses.

Maria Loh Mun Foong (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2017, with the headline 'View gene therapy as a medical advancement'. Print Edition | Subscribe