Getting in Your Genes: Genetic Therapy for Erectile Dysfunction

Written by Mary Ellen Ellis | Published on March 13, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on March 13, 2014

Discover a new treatment and see if it can work for ED.

Erectile Dysfunction

The inability to maintain an erection, or to have one at all, is called erectile dysfunction. It’s also known as ED or impotence. Occasional ED is normal and not necessarily indicative of a greater health problem. Frequent ED, on the other hand, could signal an underlying health issue, and can also cause relationship problems, stress, and lowered self-esteem.

Talk to your doctor if you experience frequent ED. They can help you find out what health problems may be causing it and the right treatment for you. Click through the slideshow to find out about new and innovative ED treatment techniques, such as gene therapy.

Mechanisms of ED

ED can have psychological causes, but in many cases there is a physical reason for frequent impotence. For instance, conditions like heart disease and diabetes or nerve damage can result in ED. Impotence is also more common in older men.

Erections occur when blood flows into the penis. This process is regulated by nerves, nitric oxide in the blood, calcium and potassium ions, and other molecules. Anything that disrupts these regulators can cause impotence.

Lifestyle Changes and Medical Treatments

Treatments and lifestyle changes are successful for most men with ED. Coping with psychological or relationship issues, losing weight, quitting smoking, and exercising more can be helpful.

When lifestyle changes only help so much, oral medications that increase the amount of nitric oxide in the blood can be used. Another medication called alprostadil can also be used to dilate arteries, allowing for greater blood flow to the penis.

Unfortunately, these treatments won’t help all men. Researchers continue to strive for better solutions.

Gene Therapy

Gene therapy is a technique being developed by researchers to treat and prevent a variety of diseases by targeting the genes that cause them. The basic idea behind the technique is to alter the faulty genes in the affected person.

This may mean replacing a faulty gene with a corrected one, removing an unnecessary gene that’s causing a disease, or adding a new gene to counteract one that’s causing a disease. Gene therapy is still largely experimental, but researchers are making great strides in creating safe and effective therapies.

Gene Therapy to Increase Nitric Oxide

One major focus of gene therapy research for ED treatment has been nitric oxide. Oral medications already target this molecule, but they don’t work for everyone. Several studies have used injections of genes targeting the production of nitric oxide in rats. The injections include inert viruses carrying the gene of interest, which is then inserted into the DNA of the rat. The results in the animal studies have shown this technique to be effective.

Gene Therapy with Growth Factors

In some instances, damaged nerves resulting from diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis (MS) cause ED. Gene therapy targeted at restoring the function of the nerves involved in erections may be able to help men with ED. This strategy involves inserting genes that code for growth factors into a patient’s DNA. Certain growth factors may be able to repair nerve damage and restore normal function. Animal studies using this technique have been successful.

Gene Therapy and Ion Channels

Muscle cells in the penis contain large proteins called ion channels. These channels allow ions to move in and out of the cells. This movement of ions helps regulate the muscles and nerves of the penis, which in turn produces erections.

The most successful ED gene therapy to date has involved inserting genes that code for the production of more of these channels. The results have been positive in animal and early human trials. The treatment has proven effective and safe, but it’s not yet available to the general public.

Viral and Nonviral Gene Therapy

The genes that are inserted into a patient’s DNA during gene therapy are most often delivered by viruses. As with vaccines, the viruses employed have been disabled. But there are still safety concerns associated with using them. For instance, the virus can kick the immune system into action and produce the symptoms of being sick.

The therapy that targets ion channels has been administered using a nonviral delivery technique and has proven successful. It’s not as efficient as using a virus, but it may be safer for the patient.

Advantages of Gene Therapy

Oral medications for ED are safe and effective for many men. For others, however, they either don’t work or are not a safe option. Ineligible candidates for oral ED medications include men who take nitrate heart medications, take blood thinners, have heart disease, or have had a stroke.

If gene therapies are successfully developed for the general public, they should be safe for all men to use. Delivery may involve a simple injection twice a year. Many men may be able to eliminate ED with this minimally invasive treatment technique.

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