National Geographic

The Renewed Hope for Virus-Repaired Genes: My New Story for Wired

Since the mid-1900s, medical researchers have dreamed of fixing genetic disorders by supplying people with working versions of genes. By the late 1990s, that dream–known as gene therapy–seemed very, very close. Scientists were developing engineered viruses that would infect patients with DNA that would allow their bodies to make the proteins they needed to survive.

But then, in 1999, a young man who had volunteered for a trial died. The whole field of gene therapy went into a tailspin. Only in recent years has it recovered.

I’ve written a story for Wired about that turnaround, focusing on the career of the scientist who oversaw that fateful 1999 trial, James Wilson. For the past fourteen years Wilson been hunting for better viruses for gene therapy, and his viruses are now involved in some of the most promising research for treating diseases ranging from hemophilia to blindness. To find out more about Wilson and gene therapy, check out “The Fall and Rise of Gene Therapy.”

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  1. Donald Forsdyke
    August 16, 2013

    Many of us in the mid-1900s had the dream, and continued it until the 1990s. But remembering Irving Page’s remark (1976) that over-promise was the besetting sin of biomedical researchers (see: http://post.queensu.ca/~forsdyke/peerrev0.htm#The cure of cancer 1976), we hunkered down to providing a secure knowledge base from which an assault on the gene-therapy summit could be launched. Sadly, it was not that simple. Most research needs funding and this distorts priorities. While I was writing my first book – “Tomorrow’s Cures Today?” (2000) – setting all this out for the general public, Professor Wilson and his team were pushing ahead prematurely, so leading to the disaster you relate. At least, as you point out, they now move ahead with more caution, but those of us trying to build the proper knowledge base still scramble for funds. The main message of my book still stands. If we had properly secured the knowledge base and paid less attention to “quick fix” promises, tomorrow’s cures might have been here today!

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