Scientists call it the next medical revolution -- a new tool that will soon allow them to correct some of the life-threatening inborn errors of nature, including such wide-ranging, fatal diseases as sickle cell anemia, heart disease and even cancer.
Known as gene therapy, the technique harnesses viruses to work for, instead of against, humans. By altering viral particles to carry human genes, the treatment allows correction of the very fabric of life: the DNA molecules that make up chromosomes and genes.
Experiments in gene therapy are moving rapidly. Half a dozen research teams at key institutions throughout the country are pursuing gene therapy. At the head of the pack are two teams: one at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), Princeton University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, and another at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Experiments have been conducted only in animals so far, but Dr. W. French Anderson, head of NHLBI's Molecular Hematology Laboratory and one of the gene therapy researchers, predicted last October that the first humans "are likely to be treated in 1986 and very possibly in the early part of 1986."
In preparation, the National Institutes of Health's Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee last year adopted "Points to Consider," a set of guidelines for researchers interested in performing gene therapy on humans. Critics of gene therapy worry that medical science may be on the verge of writing a page out of "Brave New World," with scientists genetically engineering human beings. The "Points to Consider" are among various safeguards built in to the experimentaion approval process to guarantee safety for both patients and the public.
Work continues on gene therapy, Anderson said recently, noting that "there's no major news, but there is steady progress."
His group is now implanting genes into monkeys, but is still not ready to try implanting altered genes in humans. "It looks like we have improved our efficiency since last time," he said, "but it's still not enough yet.
"We are still hopeful of submitting a protocol in early 1986 . . . We just don't know if it will be weeks or months. But we know it won't be years."