Science in Christian Perspective



Newsworthy Genetics

James C. Peterson, ASA Fellow

Wingate University Wingate, NC 28174

From: Perspectives on Science and Chrristian Faith 52 (September 2000): 151-152.

The year 2000 has already been a wild ride for genetics in the news. Three areas have attracted particular attention.

(1) Agriculture has long been intentional about cross breeding for desired traits. Genetic technology now offers greater speed, precision, and breadth of sources for introducing characteristics. For example, a Vitamin A fortified strain of rice has been engineered. Largely unnoticed by the public so far in the United States, the use of these techniques has caused an uproar in Europe. People there were already uneasy about the trustworthiness of their food supply due to the "mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephelopathy)" disaster. English beef producers fed ground beef byproducts such as cow brain to their cattle to speed growth. This practice made possible the spread of a brain disease lethal for cattle and apparently deadly for some humans who ate their meat. Also many European farmers feel that their livelihood is threatened by the gradual lowering of trade barriers against less expensive foods grown in North America. Together these concerns have led to prominently posted pledges by grocery stores and restaurants to offer no genetically modified products. It is also not unusual to see on European local news the latest incursion of protesters wearing full-body containment suits out in the fields trampling any genetically modified crops they can find. So far in the U. S., a few companies have taken up the issue. Frito-Lay has pledged not to use genetically modified corn and Gerber has promised to keep genetically modified products out of baby food.

(2) The media loves a horse race and has followed the wrangle between the private corporation Celera Genomics (CG) and the publicly funded Human Genome Project (HGP) over the ownership and release of new sequencing data. The even larger story that has been eclipsed is that a working draft of the human genome is already available and is quickly being refined. At last, this was officially announced in a joint press conference by Francis Collins (HGP) and Craig Venter (CG) on June 26, 2000. As readers of this journal probably realize, reading the sequence is far from being able to understand or use it, but the basic scientific advance of making the sequence known is extremely useful to better understand and begin intervention in the human genome. Labs have also completed most of the consensus sequence of some bacteria, yeast, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. Sequencing these organisms gives us models to study how the human genome functions.

(3) The first ten years of attempts at gene therapy had seen advance in technique but no clear cures. Then in the fall of 1999, Jesse Gelsinger, only eighteen years old, died in a gene therapy trial. During the ensuing investigation, charges have been made that the investigators gave insufficiently complete disclosure of the risks, hence undermining informed consent, and that they were increasing test dosages too aggressively. Concerns have also been raised about conflict of interest when an investigator will reap substantial financial rewards from a resulting new product and about failure at multiple research sites to report adverse reactions in trials to regulatory agencies. The University of Pennsylvania has announced that the investigators involved in the Gelsinger tragedy will no longer pursue research with patients.

This nadir for gene therapy was followed in April 2000 by the announcement that Marina Cavazzana-Calvo and Alain Fischer had led a team to the first clearly lifesaving gene therapy. Two babies were afflicted with SCID-X1 (severe combined immunodeficiency-X1). Their bone marrow lacked part of the genetic instructions needed for a working immune system. The physicians were able to insert the needed genetic material into marrow cells which then multiplied and displaced cells with the defective gene. At the time of the announcement in Science,1 the babies were continuing to sustain their newly functioning immune systems ten months after treatment. It appears that here at last is confirmation that in some cases gene therapy may actually bring about a cure.

Whether in food production, research, or therapy, the Christian tradition calls us to use well the physical world to serve our neighbors. God sustains us in creation, restores us in redemption, and develops us in the continuing life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Reflecting God's image and called to follow Jesus Christ, we too should seek to sustain, restore, and improve the physical world temporarily entrusted to us. Genetic intervention is not inherently an arrogant affront to God. Pursuing it rightly can be part of our mandate to grow and serve. It can be a great boon in genuinely helping our neighbors, but it will never achieve a manmade utopia. It can only directly affect part of the physical world and the physical world is only part of what it is to be human. Genetic intervention is a developing capability that we are responsible to use to help humankind. No more. No less. Sorting out the best uses in the many practical decisions present and ahead is well worth our attention.



1Marina Cavazzana-Calvo, et al., "Gene Therapy of Human Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID)-X1 Disease," Science 288, no. 5466 (April 28, 2000): 669-72.