Over recent centuries of medical breakthroughs and extensive improvements in healthcare, the human life expectancy has “more than doubled to almost 80 years” (Ninde). Despite this progressive innovation in medicine, the prevalence of numerous age-related diseases remain today without a cure. Gene therapy currently holds the most potential in permanently curing age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Cardiovascular disease by targeting specific mutations within DNA. As with any new high-risk medical advancement, the public rightfully questions the ethics of the unknown. There is no way biomedical scientists can declare what potential side-effects will arise from altering genes without first conducting many years of clinical research. Despite the inevitable risks of any medical breakthrough, exceeding beyond the current plateau in the medical research on age-related disease is an overall ethical advancement due to its vast potential benefits.
When introducing the new research on radical life extension, many people envision spending an extra decade of life in a nursing home or hospital. In spite of this unethical conception, the goal of this research is actually to promote healthy and youthful longevity, adding more years of youth by directly targeting the cellular aging process. The current method of treatment for diseases associated with age primarily involves pharmacology. This treatment only goes so far by strictly reducing certain symptoms of aging and disease while ultimately disregarding the underlying genetic causes that cannot be changed with medication. One controversial concern of taking the higher risk of gene modification is the obvious risk of unknown long-term health effects. Since this is a potentially life-threatening treatment, the risks realistically need to be taken with serious caution in order to eventually clinically develop these methods.
In order to obtain a more accurate representation of possible health threats in the long run, scientists from gene therapy trials are routinely following up with patients to see how their bodies react to the treatment over time. For instance, one clinical trial for Parkinson’s Disease conducted a long-term follow up study of patients that participated in a ProSavin gene therapy trial. After up to five years of treatment, “no serious adverse events related to the study drug or surgical procedure were reported” (Palfi et al., 2014). Moreover, “improvement in motor behavior was observed in all patients” (Palfi et al., 2014). This gene therapy study on Parkinson’s is one of the many clinical trials for age-related diseases that have provided a sense of security in the fearful yet inventive world of biomedicine. Although Parkinson’s disease is not quite as deadly as other vigorous age-related conditions, the effectiveness of this gene therapy can inspire similar methods of combating such progressive deterioration of the mind and body.
Parkinson’s disease is one of the many age-related diseases that commonly begins to manifest itself in people 60 years of age or older. The aging process visibly manifests itself in both physically and mentally harmful ways. Working at an assisted living memory care facility for the elderly was a truly heartbreaking and awakening experience to see this happen firsthand. On account of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in particular, residents were deteriorating from severe neural atrophy. It was upsetting to see the warmest souls no longer know how to care for themselves, slowly losing touch with the present reality, and in some cases being unable to recognize their loved ones. Knowing that there is still no cure for many illnesses associated with aging is the unfortunate reality as of now. Nevertheless, there is still ample time for research to find a cautious route to effective gene therapy even if it takes many more years of trial and error.
Along with the concern of long-term health effects, the possibility of overpopulation and its adverse consequences is another ethical controversy amid life extension therapy. As human life expectancy has grown tremendously over the past century, population has also dramatically increased by billions. From an environmental standpoint, it is understandable why the idea of population growth raises concerns given the substantial damage that humans have caused to the Earth. Evidently, more environmental restrictions need to be put into place before more irrevocable harm is done. However, due to dropping fertility rates, the United Nations World Population Prospects of 2019 reported that “the world’s global population is due to plateau by the end of the century.” By 2100, the annual growth rate is predicted to drop to “less than 0.1%” (Hill 2019). As the population growth rate lowers over time and reaches a plateau, life expectancy will grow apart from how logically sustainable resources are used. There is no ethical reason to let this irrational fear based on misunderstanding allow these diseases to persist when there is clearly a potential cure lying in the genetic research world. It is more ethical to find the means to extinguish the epidemic of age-related diseases than to be apathetic and worry more about unrealistic population scares.
In addition to the environmental concerns over population growth, the public has also grown apprehensive toward the financial accessibility of anti-aging gene therapy when it reaches the market. From a socioeconomic standpoint, it is expected for concerns to be raised over the access to these genetic therapies that will inevitably home with a high cost. Compared to other countries, America’s healthcare system is financially straining with little assistance from the U.S. Government. As with any major medical treatment, anti-aging gene therapy is bound to come at a cost “as high as $1 million per patient” according to scientist and science communicator, Jeff Bessen (Bessen 2019). The high costs at which this advancement will cost for patient access instills a fear of further empowering the superiority of the wealthy. This idea creates further concerns in the morality of gene therapy given the existing socioeconomic gap in the United States. However, it is crucial to also acknowledge that the initially outrageous costs of new medical technologies typically drop over time.
Historically, advanced methods of medical treatment follow a similar pattern in price with time. Notably, The National Human Genome Research Institute’s data shows that “it took only 15 years for the full genome sequencing cost to drop from $100 million to $300” (Bagalà 2017). This major financial improvement over the years has ultimately become affordable enough to be accessible to people of diverse financial statuses and in turn has saved lives. Furthermore, the drug metformin for type 2 diabetes treatment “fell from $1.24 per tablet in 2002 to 31 cents in 2013” (Bagalà 2017). The dramatic drop in cost for metformin could promote a similar outcome for genetic life extension therapy given that this drug is also targeted to stalling the aging process. Clearly, there is a pattern in the way medical treatments have an initial peak and eventual deflation in cost. It is unrealistic to expect prices of anti-aging gene therapy to existentially be worth millions of dollars when many other relatively new medical advancements have followed the same decline.
Evidently, there is a wide range of social controversies surrounding life-extending gene therapy. By focusing more attention on the potential to obtain a solidified cure for age-related diseases, more people will see why the risks are morally worth taking. Critical thinking and deeper research behind these ethical fears convey that the benefits immensely outweigh the risks. To a certain extent, most people have a personal experience with age-related diseases, either directly within themselves or indirectly through affected family members or friends. One aspect most people can agree on in spite of ethics is the heartache that comes with watching loved ones deteriorate from incurable illnesses and being unable to help. With a cautious approach, anti-aging gene therapy is an ethical method to turning the prospective cures for age-related diseases into an innovative reality.