Genetics

Something in the Blood

Red blood cells. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/ysvxWb.
Red blood cells. Image via Wylio, http://bit.ly/ysvxWb.

Usually when I hear people talk about finding the good in the midst of a difficult situation, my cynical radar goes up. I picture the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian and the two thieves are being crucified while whistling and singing “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Yeah, right.

I reminds me a girl named Cathy that I knew in high school who already lived on her own before she had even graduated. At school she was the perpetual ray of sunshine, always offering warm smiles and hugs, but hardly concealing a deeper undercurrent of sadness that you could nearly taste.

But once in a while, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of grace in the middle of the worst humanity has to offer. And it’s in those moments that I tend to recognize God in our midst.

 

Audio Interview with Francis S. Collins

 

Francis S. Collins has long been known in the science world for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, an ambitious 13-year joint endeavor by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy to identify all of the approximately 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA. The project ended successfully in 2003, guaranteeing Collins' place in history as a vital contributor to the progress of genetic research.

 

 

More recently, however, Collins has been making a name for himself in a different realm--that of religion. As an evangelical Christian and advocate for the peaceful coexistence of faith and science, Collins is a controversial and puzzling figure for many. Conservatives call him a heretic for suggesting that Darwinian evolution is not just truth, but God's truth, and liberals protested his appointment last summer as head of the National Institutes of Health, claiming his faith makes him unfit to be the director of a major scientific organization. In this interview with Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi, Collins addresses the concerns from both sides, and shares how studying DNA sequences is not just research for him, but worship.

 

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Sojourners Magazine February 2010
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Interpreting the Language of God

Francis S. Collins has long been known in the science world for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, an ambitious 13-year joint endeavor by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy to identify all of the approximately 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA. The project ended successfully in 2003, guaranteeing Collins’ place in history as a vital contributor to the progress of genetic research. More recently, however, Collins has been making a name for himself in a different realm—that of religion. As an evangelical Christian and advocate for the peaceful coexistence of faith and science, Collins is a controversial and puzzling figure for many. Conservatives call him a heretic for suggesting that Darwinian evolution is not just truth, but God’s truth, and liberals protested his appointment last summer as head of the National Institutes of Health, claiming his faith makes him unfit to be the director of a major scientific organization. In this interview with Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi, Collins addresses the concerns from both sides, and shares how studying DNA sequences is not just research for him, but worship.

Jeannie Choi: How did you come to faith?

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Sojourners Magazine February 2010
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God is in the D(NA)-tails

Everything our bodies need to become whole, healthy, and unique arise from the grand plan contained within one molecule: DNA. The elegance, beauty, and power of God can be seen in the intricacies of human genetics.

Yet not everyone’s DNA is perfect—in fact, we all have flaws. Some flaws are not that serious—we may be bow-legged, or gain weight too easily for our liking. But other problems are more profound. Take, for instance, Huntington’s Disease. It’s caused by a change in the huntingtin gene that one inherits from a parent. Symptoms include a writhing and twisting of the arms, followed by dementia and inevitable death. The disease is not pretty, and there is no treatment.

This is where the dilemmas start. When genetic disorders arise, how far can we go in order to fix them? If we see God in DNA, is it sacred territory? Or are we allowed to approach, to investigate, and to make changes? These are not rhetorical questions. The entire human genome—every bit of DNA—has been mapped out by the Human Genome Project. It’s no longer science fiction to use genes to "grow" new organs for transplant, to design medicine that’s specific for each individual, or to replace bad genes with new, good ones. Of immediate concern is genetic testing—the ability to determine if a person has genes that will increase or guarantee their risk of disease.

Genetic testing holds so much potential for good—and, of course, for bad. A child who has a parent with Huntington’s Disease, for example, can be tested to see if he or she has the damaged gene—but there is no treatment. All the test yields is the certainty of a horrible, slowly progressing illness that kills at an early age. If there is no treatment, is making such a diagnosis really using the power of genetics to heal?

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2001
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New Eden. Same Snake?

DECODING THE HUMAN genome involves placing in correct order 3.1 billion genetic base pairs and then figuring out what they do. Thanks to computers—and one of the largest scientific endeavors since the Apollo project—the once impossible task has recently jumped to near completion. Amid the hype of new abilities to cure the sick and heal the lame, there are age-old temptations. Is the Human Genome Project salvation or snake oil? Or perhaps a little of both?

Biotechnology raises distinctly religious questions. Though few denominations have official statements on the genome project, Christian bioethicists assure us that the guiding principles of love, justice, and mercy apply. The human body is not an object, so an individual's genes should not be patented. All people have the right to participate in evaluating the social and biological implications of the genetic revolution and in democratically guiding its applications. Clear distinctions must be made between "therapeutic genetic intervention" and genetic "enhancement."

Genetic ethics, which will become increasingly important in the days ahead, will focus around a number of questions: How can genetic discrimination be prevented in work, healthcare, insurance, and education—and privacy be preserved? Do genetic patents help or threaten the development of therapies that relieve human suffering? Will the concept of genetic determinism threaten the concept of free agency, particularly as it applies to the legal system? Does germ-line genetic manipulation, which passes alterations to the next generation, compromise basic human dignity?

Religion shouldn't be a force that merely blocks technology, as some would have it. Rather, in light of concerns and principles like these, it must shape and mold technology in the service of human dignity.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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You're Fired!

There are currently about 900 genetic tests available. They can be helpful to understand, plan for, prevent, or treat genetically related conditions. With the approaching introduction of "gene chip" technology (which enables biologists to scour huge chunks of genomes in search of the genes that promote disease), large numbers of genetic tests are likely to become quick, relatively inexpensive, and routine.

Such accessible genetic information has many implications. One crucial area is that of employment.

Popular fears have been expressed in novels and movies that employers will use these genetic tests to choose employees not for their ability but for their genetic potential. If the employers did so, they would be misunderstanding human genetics. Human beings are so complex that a rich genetic endowment can be unfulfilled and a relatively poor one can be substantially transcended. Companies seeking to predict future performance would do far better to look at past performance and current-ability-based tests than to look at genetic heritage.

Employers are likely to try to use genetic tests to limit what they spend on medical care. To survive long term, businesses depend on producing more revenue than they consume, either by raising income or reducing expenses. Medical care is often a major factor in company costs.

Most employees in the United States are covered by company self insurance. Many of the others are under experience-based policies where a company’s premium changes with how much medical care employees need. In either case, medical care for employees and their dependents is a significant part of the employer’s outlays. Awareness of this impact is heightened for management by the concentration of medical care expenses in one subset of employees. In any given year, 5 percent of employees incur about 50 percent of health care expenditures, and 10 percent need about 70 percent of these resources.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Reproductive Technology

Critics of the scientific establishment, especially religious ones, are frequently dismissed as "Luddites" or "technophobes." What’s the implication? That religious skeptics are woefully ignorant, or, even worse, downright superstitious when it comes to scientific research, and that the religious-based moral critique must not impede scientific advancement. Scientists, according to this fervent faith, know what’s best.

Lori B. Andrews’ The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology demonstrates, however, that skeptics of science’s innate beneficence have good reasons to sound the alarm when it comes to genetic research. And if the skepticism extends to corporate involvement in biotech research and reproductive technology, then let the alarm bell ring until it breaks. Andrews is a law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and the director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology. She has advised state, federal, and international agencies, and she sat on a committee that reviewed the ethical implications of the government’s Human Genome Project. Few have walked this minefield as carefully, or as thoroughly.

Why is the area of reproductive technology a minefield? In Andrews’ eyes, it is not so much because of the problems that may occur if we proceed down this road. That journey has already begun, she explains, since at least the birth of Louise Brown, the first "test-tube" baby, born through in vitro fertilization (IVF) in England in July 1978. Months before an English doctor had fertilized—in a petri dish—an egg of Lesley Brown with sperm from her husband.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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