Should the NHS Allocate Funding for Somatic Gene Therapy?: A Discussion

An article evaluating whether the NHS should allocate funding for somatic gene therapy and the differences between somatic and germline therapies.

This article will be arguing that NHS funding should be allocated for somatic gene therapy. Unequivocally, somatic gene therapy is a wondrous medical advancement that can offer thousands of people treatment for debilitating diseases. I urge you to consider how extensive a reach this treatment could provide. If the NHS allocated appropriate funding for this life-improving research, all genders, ages, and classes could benefit from it. 

Some purport that gene therapy could cause a decline in pharmaceutical jobs due to fewer drugs being required if the biological source of symptoms is treated. How is this ethical or at all fitting with the NHS constitutional values or basic medical ethics? Do you propose we withhold life-changing treatment purely to ensure pharmaceutical companies can exploit these people’s suffering? Although economics undoubtedly have to be considered, it is inhumane and in blatant disregard of our duty to provide justice, care, and beneficence for all if we opt not to treat a multitude of aggressive illnesses such as cancer for the benefit of industry. Ask Debra, the mother of 7-year-old Jack Crick, who received gene therapy treatment at Great Ormond Street Hospital for an immune disorder, X-SCID. This treatment removed the need for harrowing chemotherapy and an invasive bone marrow transplant. Medicine aims to treat and cure; reducing dependency on drugs is the aim, not something to be avoided. As many people would argue, any treatment is expensive, so surely, rather than leaving people dependent on drugs for their whole lifetimes, we should invest in gene therapy research to treat the underlying cause and improve people’s quality of life. Although some argue that this funding would require cuts from elsewhere, it is vital that the NHS allocates funding to avoid elitism where only the wealthy can afford treatment and private companies monopolise. 

The ethics of gene therapy research is a contentious issue due to fears of euthenics and attempting to eradicate “undesirable” conditions. I would argue that NHS funding should extend to somatic gene therapy alone, removing the controversy of genetic editing or any possible attempt at euthenics. Despite germline gene therapy theoretically having the potential to edit genes so that characteristics are passed onto descendants, this article specifically focuses on somatic gene therapy, which is solely used to treat existing health conditions such as cancer, blindness, or epilepsy. By no means would this treatment be forced upon people; this outdated paternalistic medicine has no place in modern healthcare, but surely patients should be offered this often life-enhancing treatment? The objective of, arguably, all cancer treatment and research is to eradicate the illness; therefore, gene therapy would only aid this plight. In cases of blindness, somatic gene therapy could give those with visual impairment more sight, and, undoubtedly, it should be the patient’s choice, and they should have the option. 

Gene therapy and the research lessons learnt could offer solutions for other pressing issues affecting the NHS, such as cardiovascular disease. Research is our future: our citizens are at a major disadvantage if we allow ourselves to regress compared to other countries. Great Ormond Street has conducted gene therapy treatment on severely ill children with immuno-suppressing disorders and had very positive results. Harvard medical centre successfully treated a teenager with sickle cell disease in 2017. Just a year ago, a one-time gene therapy treatment was found to have reduced a monkey’s cholesterol for three years. Undoubtedly, further research is needed, but it is imperative that more NHS funding is allocated to this invaluable scheme. 80% of all rare diseases have a genetic component, meaning 80% could be treated through gene therapy. It is unequivocal that we should prioritise it. 

Gene therapy has the potential to be a long-term treatment that will offer benefits to the whole society for decades. In the case of cancer patients, gene therapy could allow more years to spend with loved ones, doing things that they enjoy. Despite some arguing that gene therapy is an unnecessary financial burden on the NHS, this treatment could actually help to buoy up our health service by reducing the number of patients reliant on the organisation for lifelong care. This could result in fewer patients who need ongoing treatments over many years, ranging from scans to surgeries. Although the starting costs may be high, once a gene therapy programme is established, it would lessen the burden on the NHS and free more money for improved care and preventative measures, which have proved to be so essential during Covid-19. It will also create a utilitarian society where more people can become economically active without illness and allow children like Jack Crick to attend schools and mix with other children. The positive effects stretch from economic to social.

As we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, research and science help us to prevail. If the UK allows itself to regress compared to our neighbours, we could be at serious risk of having to barter and buy this revolutionary treatment. Post-Brexit UK now has less of a right to scientific research happening in Europe, as we have seen during the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. If other countries progress with gene therapy research and we fall behind, we may have no way of accessing this treatment, and the thousands of patients in the UK who would benefit from it would go without. Consequently, it is vital that we advance with our own research and that the NHS funds somatic gene therapy treatment to avoid the prolonged suffering of those with genetic conditions and eradicate inequality globally.

Sophie Farr, Youth Medical Journal 2022


By Sophie Farr

I am a student from the UK and my ambition is to become a doctor.

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