Sometimes people and place collide in what can make for a timely and thorough discussion of contemporary topics. Then the discussion is forgotten, only to be resurrected decades later.

This is often the case in religion and science. The latest example is a series of conversations I participated in last month on the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Together we were asked to ponder “Genomics for Faith” in a series of meetings with research scientists. Over the course of the two meetings I participated in, it became clear there seemed to be not only an expectation of conflict from both sides, but also a wholesale ignorance of what theologians and scientists had already published and wrote on the topic of genetic research and ethical considerations decades earlier.

Advances in genomics, or the study of DNA, have been ongoing. Our knowledge of the 3 billion pairs of nucleotides of DNA is not getting as much play in the media as it once did, but as one scientist said to me those initial discoveries only led to more questions that in turn leads to more research. The ethical questions for humanity’s future remain bountiful as pastors and scientists together reflected on what we had learned about new gene therapies and insights into the biological world around us that is teeming with life on the microscopic scale.

Meetings in labs

Many of the faith leaders were from the Christian faith, but other faith communities were involved as well. Designed initially as a series of workshops, the meetings began last fall and were sponsored by the Wayfarer Foundation, which describes itself as a Bahai-inspired organization.

Participants early on, according to the organizers at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, explored topics such as “What constitutes life?” and ultimately “What is death?”

Gene editing was also explored. In mid-February, I personally participated in a lab tour where Dr. Haiting Ma was using mice stem cells to help create therapies for Type 1 diabetes. From observing the cells under a microscope, to placing the cells in a test tube for growth and ultimately in storage, in order to use them later for specific experiments, we were able to see the process firsthand.

We then sat down to discuss any questions we had about the lab and Dr. Ma’s work. He outlined his aims for his research, the years it takes to actually see the fruits of the research and he then wondered what other religious communities may think of his work with stem cells. We drilled down to the ethical concerns of when life begins and whether these cells were promoting health and wholeness of the creation or were a wasteful use of the ingredients for life.

We asked him too about the concerns the scientific community may have and how the work is reviewed ethically before proceeding. Many of the ethical concerns were focused on doing research with adult stem cells, mice stem cells or in some cases embryonic stem cells. He mentioned that the embryonic stem cells would often be sourced from IVF banks, where they would have otherwise been wasted and gone unused – details that are disclosed to Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) prior to research being done. Also in gene editing, there is a larger concern of making any genetic amendments that then could be passed on to another generation. This is something that IRBs are keen to avoid.

What is a stem cell?

The most basic question, that both our group and another group that visited another researcher looking at brain cancer progression had was, “what is a stem cell and what makes it useful?”

We learned that the several kinds of stem cells are essentially valuable in that they are cells from which all other cells with specific tasks are generated. This means stem cells are ideal for research because they may be directed to form so many types of cells for research and medical use. For researchers, such as Dr. Haiting, this means stem cells with the correct information are able to help generate healthy cells to replace those affected by disease. This is referred to as regenerative medicine. (For more see, an article from the Mayo Clinic.)

For this same reason, stem cells provide ideal models for testing new drugs before scientists move on to conducting lab trials on animals, and later on humans. As illustrated in the Mayo Clinic essay, new areas of study include effectiveness of using human stem cells that have been programmed into tissue-specific cells to test new drugs. The cells are ‘programmed’ to have the properties of the types of cells targeted by the drug. This use of stem cells is still evolving.

It is also critical to note that not all stem cells are equal. In humans there are adult stem cells, altered adult cells to have embryonic stem cell properties, perinatal stem cells, and lastly embryonic stem cells, which have received so much media coverage in recent years.

Adult stem cells are found in body tissues such as bone marrow or fat. In comparison to embryonic stem cells, they have a more limited ability to give rise to various cells of the body. Research using adult stem cells has led to early-stage clinical trials to test usefulness and safety.

Altered adult stem cells have been transformed via genetic reprogramming. By altering these adult cells researchers can have them act similarly to embryonic stem cells. Examples of this include reprogramming connective tissue cells to become functional heart cells, which could be useful in treating patients with heart failure for example.

Perinatal stem cells are found in amniotic fluid as well as in umbilical cord blood. These stem cells have a larger ability to change into specialized cells. These types of cells have been found in amniotic fluid drawn from pregnant women during a procedure known as amniocentesis.

Lastly, embryonic stem cells, which have the broadest scope for use as specialized cells, but their use is controversial. These cells come from embryos that are three to five days old. At this stage an embryo is made up of about 150 cells.

Some view embryos as being the very beginning of personhood or human life. The embryos used in stem cell research come from IVF clinics as eggs that were fertilized but never implanted in women’s uteruses. Most scientists are quick to point out that scientifically there is no definitive point that is considered the beginning of human life.

The guidelines that define how embryonic stem cells can be used in research and donated for research were drawn up by the National Institutes of Health in 2009. It stipulates, for example, that embryos created by IVF can only be used when the embryo is no longer needed.

The Human Genome Project (1990-2003)

As the Human Genome Project was kicking off and making headlines, theologians at Center for Theology and Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, Calif., were monitoring the idea of embryonic stem cell research well before it began to stir controversy in the public square.

In 1991, the U.S. National Institutes of Health actually funded a project that Lutheran theologian Ted Peters led called, “Theological and Ethical Questions Raised by the Human Genome Initiative.” The conclusion was later published in a book in 2008 by Peters titled, Sacred Cells? Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research.

At that time, he wrote, “The disagreements over stem cell research are not due to a conflict between science and faith. Rather they are due to honest, yet differing interpretations of what faith requires at the present moment.”

It is worth noting that other Christian theologians of various backgrounds have explored genetic research and potential complications across at least the last two decades, with plenty of books and articles being produced on the topic over those years.

Has the church said it’s ok?

In 2011, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) published a social statement on genetics called: Genetics, Faith and Responsibility.

The social statement highlighted the moral responsibility of science and lifted up the vocation of science. The task force developing the social statement included theologians, scientists, businesspeople, and other vocations who met and deliberated over five years to propose what was then adopted as official church teaching by the 2011 Churchwide Assembly, the highest deliberative and legislative body of the ELCA. Many inside the church and outside consider it a strong and broad ranging formulation of what society and the church can find promising in the new discoveries that are emerging, while also providing criteria and guidance for what could be seen as perilous, unintended consequences for humanity.  The document considers the science, social analysis, scripture, and the Lutheran theological tradition.

Essentially, the 48-page document is organized by an informed explanation of genetic science and technology, an affirmation of faith, and a thoughtful set of implications on what should be done going forward. In a sense, the statement offers a roadmap of interaction broadly with science, how to consider its impact, and a guide to equipping communities with sufficient knowledge with which to promote good science.

Readers will not find a line of demarcation between good and evil applications of gene editing. With respect to embryonic stem cells, the social statement doesn’t explore that or other issues in depth.  It does mention areas where embryology is used, and therapies involved.

The social statement reads, “The ELCA values genetic science as an expression of the human responsibility to learn and predict, imagine and invent for the sake of stewarding creation.”

The statement acknowledges that our knowledge of the human genome has powerfully created new ways to respond to ‘ailments and misfortunes’ of life. It adds that genetic knowledge also carries the potential for widescale personal and social evil.

But is there a measuring stick? Can the church tell the scientists when enough is enough?

“This church believes the use of any technology should be subject to moral assessment,” the social statement continues.

Toward that assessment, the statement encourages public participation in the dialogue considering various procedures or uses for this emerging technology. The social statement clarifies that the church does not reject the use of genetic technology per se, including genetically modified organisms, prenatal diagnosis or pharmacogenetics.

What the ELCA leans on heavily within the social statement is a benchmark of sorts that is to be found in the respect of others in addition to the promotion of the community of life with ‘justice and wisdom.’  This is seen in the fact that they say the scripture and science “bid all people of good will to consider and positively respond to the moral implications of human participation in the intricate web of life.”

The social teaching emphasizes too that we are not alone in this task. The Word not only became flesh but took on a human genome. “God on the cross shows complete solidarity with creation,” the document states.

No matter the complexity of the science, the social statement commits the church to be engaged and to respond faithfully and fully to the potential and the problems that may lie ahead. This requires not only engaging with the science involved, but also with the scientists themselves.

This is not always an easy task, but the dozen or so faith leaders who participated in the meetings since last fall at the University of Illinois see a brave beginning that can be built upon going forward in their community.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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