[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question series: "How can the religious and scientific communities work together to foster a culture that is equipped to face humanity's biggest challenges?"]
As a Jesuit Catholic priest, and a molecular geneticist, this question has been a fundamental part of my adult life. But first, let me address an issue that our American culture continues to struggle with: how do science and religion actually relate to each other? Is science about the "real" world, and religion just about individual or group beliefs about how the world should be?
Or are science and religion in direct competition with both trying to construct explanations of reality that are "better" or more real than the other's approach? These questions have generated much discussion among scientists, philosophers, and theologians.
The recent advances in our understanding of genetics show how combining the insights of science and religion can be beneficial.
First, we need to be clear that science and religion are two different ways human beings use to understand reality. Science focuses on observable, quantifiable, physical aspects of our universe, whereas, religion, while taking physical reality into consideration, also includes the immaterial, non-quantifiable, human experiences and concepts which relate to the meaning and purpose of existence. While scientific discoveries also often stimulate such profound reflections, these reflections are not technically a part of scientific methodology.
Second, though different in both method and focus, neither way of understanding reality produces a more "real" or accurate comprehension of our human existence. In fact, most often both science and religion add valuable insights into any particular situation, providing a more complete understanding of it as well as how it might be improved.
The recent advances in our understanding of genetics show how combining the insights of science and religion can be beneficial. For instance, the study of genetic differences among people around the world has shown us that the idea that we could accurately classify people as belonging to different races—e.g. African, Caucasian, Asian, etc.—is actually quite incorrect on a biological level. In fact, in many ways two people who appear to be of different races, perhaps African and Caucasian, could be more similar genetically than two people who appear to be of the same African race.
This scientific finding, then, challenges us to critically review the social categories some use to classify people as different from us, and, therefore, somehow of less worth to society. From this perspective, one could argue that this scientific insight synergizes well with some common fundamental religious beliefs regarding the fundamental equality all people have in their relationship to the Divine.
However, this synergy between science and religion is not what we encounter most often in the mass media or public policy debates. In part, this is due to the fact that science and religion working well together is not normally considered newsworthy. What does get attention is when science appears to conflict with religion, or, perhaps more accurately, when the scientific community conflicts with religious communities regarding how a particular scientific advance should be applied. These disagreements usually are not due to a conflict between scientific findings and religious beliefs, but rather between differing moral, social or political agendas.
One way that the two sides can work together is to prioritize honesty and accuracy in public debates instead of crafting informational campaigns to promote political advantage.
For example, genetically modified foods have been a source of controversy for the past several decades. While the various techniques used to create targeted genetic changes in plants—e.g. drought or pest resistance—are scientifically intricate and complex, explaining these techniques to the public is similar to explaining complex medical treatments to patients. Hence, the science alone is not the issue.
The controversy arises from the differing goals various stakeholders have for this technology. Obviously, companies employing this technology want it to be used around the world both for its significantly improved food production, and for improved revenue. Opponents, which have included religious communities, focus more on the social and cultural disruption this technology can create. Since a public debate between a complex technology on one side, and a complex social situation on the other side, is difficult to undertake well, the controversy has too often been reduced to sound bites such as "Frankenfoods." While such phrases may be an effective way to influence public opinion, ultimately, they work against sensible decision-making.
One way that the two sides can work together is to prioritize honesty and accuracy in public debates instead of crafting informational campaigns to promote political advantage. I recognize that presenting a thorough and honest explanation of an organization's position does not fit easily into our 24-hour-a-day-sound-bite system, but this is necessary to make the best decisions we can if we want to foster a healthier and happier world.
Climate change and human genome editing are good examples of this problem. These are both complex issues with impacts that extend well beyond just science and religious beliefs—including economics, societal disruption, and an exacerbation of social inequalities. To achieve solutions that result in significant benefits for the vast majority of people, we must work to create a knowledgeable public that is encouraged to consider the good of both one's own community as well as that of all others. This goal is actually one that both scientific and religious organizations claim to value and pursue.
The experts often fail to understand sufficiently what the public hopes, wants, and fears.
Unfortunately, both types of organizations often fall short because they focus only on informing and instructing instead of truly engaging the public in deliberation. Often both scientists and religious leaders believe that the public is not capable of sufficiently understanding the complexities of the issues, so they resort to assuming that the public should just do what the experts tell them.
However, there is significant research that demonstrates the ability of the general public to grasp complex issues in order to make sound decisions. Hence, it is the experts who often fail to understand how their messages are being received and what the public hopes, wants, and fears.
Overall, I remain sanguine about the likelihood of both religious and scientific organizations learning how to work better with each other, and together with the public. Working together for the good of all, we can integrate the insights and the desires of all stakeholders in order to face our challenges with well-informed reason and compassion for all, particularly those most in need.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby