Humans possess two copies of most of their genes. In a recessive genetic disease, both copies of a given gene are defective. Many such illnesses are called loss-of-function genetic diseases, and they represent the most straightforward application of gene therapy: If a functional copy of the defective gene can be delivered to the correct tissue and if it makes ("expresses") its normal protein there, the patient could be cured. Other patients suffer from dominant genetic diseases. In this case, the patient has one defective copy and one normal copy of a given gene. Some of these disorders are called gain-of-function diseases because the defective gene actively disrupts the normal functioning of their cells and tissues (some recessive diseases are also gain-of-function diseases). This defective copy would have to be removed or inactivated in order to cure these patients.
Gene therapy may also be effective in treating cancer or viral infections such as HIV-AIDS. It can even be used to modify the body's responses to injury. These approaches could be used to reduce scarring after surgery or to reduce restenosis, which is the reclosure of coronary arteries after balloon angioplasty. Each of these cases will be discussed in more detail below, but first we will deal with two technical issues of gene transfer: gene delivery and longevity of gene expression.
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