Gene therapists manipulate genes to treat or prevent diseases in humans, plants and animals. Learn about academic requirements and career options in gene therapy.
Is Gene Therapy for Me?
Gene therapy uses healthy genes to treat or prevent genetic disorders. Theoretically, it allows doctors to remove mutated genes and either replace them with healthy versions or treat disease by introducing new genes into the body. The technique can also work for plant and animal diseases. Degree programs in gene therapy and genetics are available at the master's and doctoral degree level.
With training in genetics or genetic research, you could conduct research in gene therapy, become a medical scientist, a geneticist or a biology professor. If you're interested in working with people, you could administer drugs or gene therapy to patients, which requires earning a medical license. You could also become a genetic counselor, counseling people who are at risk for genetic disorders or for having children with a genetic disorder or a birth defect, according to the Human Genome Project (www.genomics.energy.gov)
According to the Occupational Information Network, geneticists study inherited disorders, their traits and methods for treating them (www.onetonline.org). As a geneticist, you'll conduct labs, interpret the results, evaluate the data and present your findings. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), characteristics of professionals in this field include patience, effective communication skills, working independently or as a team and strong research skills (www.bls.gov).
The BLS projected that between 2012 and 2022, the employment of medical scientists would increase by 13%, which means there will be 13,700 new jobs in the field. For biochemists and biophysicists, including geneticists, the BLS projected that employment would increase by 19%, and that it would also increase by 19% for biological science postsecondary teachers between 2012 and 2022. Finding employment in research and academia is very competitive, but medical scientists who have a medical license are likely to find more career opportunities.
As of May 2012, the BLS reported that the median annual salary for biological scientists was $72,700 and was $74,180 for biological sciences professors. It also reported that during that same period, the median annual salary for medical scientists who conducted research was $76,980 while health practitioners who performed diagnoses and treatments (which can include gene therapy) earned a median salary of $72,710.
How Can I Work in Gene Therapy?
To pursue a career in genetics, you must start by earning a bachelor's degree that includes courses in psychology, genetics, biochemistry and statistics. Experience in a counseling agency or organization and exposure to a genetic counseling environment are also important.
You can then earn a master's degree in human genetics or genetic counseling, or a doctoral degree in gene therapy or genetics. Through a master's degree program, your courses may address topics such as human molecular genetics, counseling strategies, medical genetics, embryology, human physiology, types of hereditary diseases and reproductive genes. You may be required to complete practicums and clinical rotations that will have you working with and counseling patients in different situations.
You will also typically be required to complete up to ten hours of directed research and a master's thesis. With this training, you could become a genetic counselor, a biology professor at a community college or continue your studies to earn a doctorate degree.
Through a doctoral degree program in genetics or gene therapy, your courses may cover viruses, infections, molecular biology, statistics, cell evolution, cell biology and cell systems. You'll learn how to conduct clinical trials, participate in therapeutic trials and complete laboratory rotations. You may also conduct research in a specific area of gene therapy, such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and certain cardiovascular diseases.
With this training, you can become a medical scientist, but to administer drugs or gene therapy you must have a medical license, which requires that you attend medical school. You can also become a biological scientist or teach biological sciences at a 4-year university.