Aug 29, 2007

Catholic Bioethics

One of my children sent me an email with news from The Guardian that "Britain's leading scientists have made a final plea for the right to create the first animal-human embryos for medical research using eggs taken from dead cows." The genetic material from the cow egg is removed and DNA from a human cell is inserted. The article continues:

The Catholic Church has made clear its opposition. Bishops told the parliamentary committee scrutinising a draft bill to allow the research to go ahead, that they opposed the creation of any embryo solely for research - they believe that all life begins at conception. They said they were also anxious to limit the destruction of such life once it had been brought into existence.

In a submission to the committee, they said: 'At the very least, embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be assumed to be embryonic human beings, and be treated accordingly.'

Bioethics is an increasingly important subject for study and decision-making within the Catholic Church. The life issues of contraception, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and cloning have been reasonably well addressed, but other scientific developments affecting the initiation of a human (or semi-human) life will need to be dealt with. It seems that the Bishops of Britain, in commenting that "a preponderance of human genes" is sufficient to classify the organism as human may need additional bioethical arguments.

Synthetic biology is dedicated to the development of non-natural living beings, and once long DNA sequences can be cheaply designed and built, this technology will be transformed into a tool with enormous profit potential. DNA sequences (genetic instructions) are designed to accomplish a specific purpose and are inserted into cells that can replicate. Coded sequences of the DNA letters A, T, C, and G can instruct the organism to make a pharmaceutical or a fuel--or do other things. [However, the insertion of a genome into an egg is a different matter for bioethical consideration, if either the genome or the egg originates from a human being.]

Perhaps it is time to quickly review recombinant DNA, DNA constructed from two or more sources (e.g., animal and plant, human and animal, plant and human) and incorporated into recombinant cells that can reproduce. The Catholic Church has not objected to recombinant DNA technology when it is used to manufacture "drugs" in a pharmaceutical "factory," even though the factory uses recombinant E. coli, mammalian cells, and yeast to manufacture many human proteins. Examples include:

* insulin for diabetics
* factor VIII for males suffering from hemophilia A
* factor IX for hemophilia B
* human growth hormone (GH)
* erythropoietin (EPO) for treating anemia
* three types of interferons
* several interleukins
* granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) for stimulating the bone marrow after a bone marrow transplant
* granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) for stimulating neutrophil production, e.g., after chemotherapy and for mobilizing hematopoietic stem cells from the bone marrow into the blood. * tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) for dissolving blood clots
* adenosine deaminase (ADA) for treating some forms of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID)
* angiostatin and endostatin for trials as anti-cancer drugs
* parathyroid hormone
* leptin
* hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) to vaccinate against the hepatitis B virus
* C1 inhibitor (C1INH) used to treat hereditary angioneurotic edema (HANE)
[Above list from here.]

Some have argued against human DNA being inserted into plant cells. I'm not sure if there is any moral difference between a technology that manufactures human proteins using animal cells and another technology using plant cells. If one technology is good (or evil), then the other is too. The question of good or evil is a bioethical one that needs much further discussion in the Catholic Church.

I recognize that genetically modified plants in the open environment will spread into the environment more quickly than modified E. coli recombinant cells grown in fermentation vats in controlled laboratories. This is a critical issue if certain recombinant cells were to be manufactured by terrorists to kill people, their sustenance, or livelihoods. That's why our country spends a huge amount of money on biological defense. Google "agricultural bioterrorism" and you'll be able to imagine a lot of nasty scenarios.

With regard to constructing specialized plant and animal organisms, I personally am more worried about the potential loss of certain plant and animal populations because poorer types will no longer be grown and the diverse genetic pool will be diminished. [Of course that has already happened with selecting the most suitable seeds and animals for human nutrients, and multiple copies of genetic libraries might be able to deal with this issue.]

New bioethical issues will hopefully be addressed properly by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. The NCBC "conducts research, consultation, publishing and education to promote human dignity in health care and the life sciences, and derives its message directly from the teachings of the Catholic Church." Ethics & Medics is a monthly commentary on ethical issues in health care and the life sciences published by the NCBC. I haven't read any issues, but the web masthead states:
The Center's staff consults regularly on life science issues and medical issues with the Vatican, the U.S. bishops and public policy-makers, hospitals and international organizations of all faiths. Vatican agencies including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers consult with the Center to help formulate magisterial teaching.
The primary NCBC contributor to discussions of bioethical issues is a relatively young priest (from his photo), Father Tad Pacholczyk, Director of Education. I've read a couple of his monthly columns and have been mostly impressed that he has the Catholic faith and scientific knowledge to adequately and correctly instruct others on Catholic bioethics. The priest contends that "Bioethics is an exceedingly important discipline for the future of our society, addressing critical issues in science and life. This discipline cannot afford to compromise its integrity as new controversies arise, selling its soul to the highest bidder or playing to powerful special-interest groups like universities or biotech companies."

I hope the NCBC expands its work to assess recent scientific efforts to create new and adapted organisms that combine genes from human beings, animals, and plants. Mostly, I hope they are guided by the Holy Spirit to be correct in their guidance to others in this critical endeavor.

1 comment:

thetimman said...

I have attended a presentation by Father Tad-- he is wonderful. I have not always been satisfied by the stances taken by the NCBC, particularly regarding vaccines.