Genetic Engineering in Medicine

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  • 0:04 Definition of Genetic…
  • 1:03 Insulin Production
  • 1:53 Food Supply
  • 3:01 Stem Cells
  • 4:20 Research
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson we'll review the basics of genetic engineering. Next we will go over three key examples of genetic engineering in medicine. We will learn about both the current and potential uses for genetic engineering as well.

Definition of Genetic Engineering

When you think of genetic engineering, you might be picturing test tubes full of naked humans, cloned for purposes of creating a vast disposable army. Although cloning is definitely part of genetic engineering, scientists are nowhere near using their skills for cloning armies of people, though you might recall that they did clone a sheep named Dolly in 1996. What scientists and doctors really focus on is using genetic engineering to cure deadly diseases, like Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and heart disease.

Genetic engineering is the process of cutting and pasting DNA from different sources inside a cell. These cells can be part of a multicellular organism like a plant, or inside a single cell, like a bacterium. DNA is the blueprint for every cell and gives all the instructions for the cell's job. Let's look at some examples of how scientists use this technique to design treatments for diseases.

Insulin Production

Insulin is a protein that regulates our blood sugar. People with type I diabetes don't have enough insulin, so their blood sugar stays very high unless they inject it themselves. High blood sugar can damage our organs, like the kidney and cardiovascular system.

Insulin is usually made by cells in our pancreas, but these cells are hard to grow in a lab. Because of this, scientists decided to find an easier method to make insulin. They cut the DNA instructions for insulin out of pancreas cells and pasted it into bacterial cells. Bacteria grow very quickly in the lab. These new bacteria produce insulin, which can be easily isolated and then given to patients. By using genetic engineering, scientists found a treatment for diabetes that could be made quickly and inexpensively.

Food Supply

You might have seen genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at the super market, or maybe you've seen signs advertising that there are not GMOs in that store, but I'm sure you've at least heard that GMOs are controversial. Lately, there has been a lot of hype about the potential dangers of genetically modified food. However, this fear is mostly unfounded. GMO food sources have tons of benefits and are not harmful to our bodies at all. They're broken down just like regular food.

Right now, scientists are working on designing foods that contain vaccines. Vaccines create immunity, where our body recognizes a virus and is able to fight it off without us getting sick. Instead of getting injections, which can be tough to transport and administer to remote countries where disease is most prevalent, scientists want to put it into their food.

One vaccine being studied is for hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is a virus that affects the liver. Tobacco plants have been engineered to make part of the virus, which when consumed by mice, causes immunity to the virus, just like a vaccine.

Stem Cells

Imagine a future where there are no wait lists for organ transplants. Patients with heart or kidney disease are able to have a tailor-made organ from their own tissue transplanted as soon as they need it. Currently, wait lists for organ transplants are very long and patients can wait years, and even die waiting for an organ that's a match for their body.

Scientists are using a special type of cell, called a stem cell, to grow new organs and replace damaged tissue. Stem cells are cells that are basically a blank slate and can become any other type of cell. They can be found in both embryos and adults. Scientists take the stem cells, put in healthy, normal DNA, and then put them into patients to replace their cells that have defective DNA. Manipulating stem cells is probably one of the most recognizable forms of genetic engineering in medicine.

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