[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?"]
In May 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical with the subtitle "On Care for Our Common Home." The letter addressed various environmental issues, such as pollution and climate change, and it reminded all of us that we are to steward the Earth, not plunder it.
Without question, biotechnology has saved the lives of millions – perhaps billions – of people.
The Pope's missive demonstrates that he is both theologically sound and scientifically literate, a very rare combination. That is why he should now author an encyclical urging the world to embrace the life-giving promise of biotechnology.
Without question, biotechnology has saved the lives of millions – perhaps billions – of people. Arguably, vaccines were the most important invention in the history of mankind. It is thought that, in the 20th century alone, at least 300 million people were killed by smallpox. Today, the number is zero, thanks to vaccination. Other killers, such as measles, diphtheria, meningitis, and diarrhea, are kept at bay because of vaccines.
Biotechnology has also saved the lives of diabetics. At one time, insulin was extracted from pig pancreases, and there were fears that we would run out of it. Then, in the 1970s, crucial advances in biotechnology allowed for the gene that encodes human insulin to be expressed in bacteria. Today, diabetics can get extremely pure insulin thanks to this feat of genetic modification.
Likewise, genetic modification has improved the environment and the lives of farmers all over the world, none more so than those living in developing countries. According to a meta-analysis published in PLoS ONE, GMOs have "reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%."
Even better, GMOs also could help improve the lives of non-farmers. In poor parts of the world, malnutrition is still extremely common. People whose diets consist mostly of rice, for example, often suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness. Golden Rice, which was genetically modified to contain a vitamin A precursor, was created and given away for free in an act of humanitarianism. Other researchers have created a genetically modified cassava to help combat iron and zinc deficiencies among children in Africa.
Despite these groundbreaking advances, the public is turning against biotechnology.
Biotechnology has also helped women with mitochondrial disease bear healthy children. Children inherit their mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells, solely from their mothers. Mitochondrial defects can have devastating health consequences. Using what is colloquially called the "three-parent embryo technique," a healthy woman donates an egg. The nucleus of that egg is removed, and that of the mother-to-be is put in its place. Then, the egg is fertilized using conventional in vitro fertilization. In April 2016, the world's first baby was born using this technique.
Yet, despite these groundbreaking advances, the public is turning against biotechnology. Across America and Europe, anti-vaccine activists have helped usher in a resurgence of entirely preventable diseases, such as measles. Anti-GMO activists have blocked the implementation of Golden Rice. And other activists decry reproductive technology as "playing God."
Nonsense. These technologies improve overall welfare and save lives. Those laudable goals are shared by all the world's major religions as part of their efforts to improve the human condition. That is why it is vitally important, if science is to succeed in eradicating illness, that it gets a full-throated endorsement from powerful religious leaders.
In his 2015 encyclical, Pope Francis wrote:
Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.
He is correct. Indeed, when people are protesting life-saving vaccines, we have lost not only our moral compass but our intellect, too.
Imagine the impact he could have if Pope Francis issued an encyclical titled "On Protecting Our Most Vulnerable." He could explain that some children, stricken with cancer or suffering from an immunological disease, are unable to receive vaccines. Therefore, we all have a moral duty to be vaccinated in order to protect them through herd immunity.
Or imagine the potential impact of an encyclical titled "On Feeding the World," in which the Pope explained that rich countries have an obligation to poorer ones to feed them by all means necessary, including the use of biotechnology. If Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu scholars throughout Asia and Africa also embraced the message, its impact could be multiplied.
In order to be successful, science needs religion; in order to be practical, religion needs science.
In order to be successful, science needs religion; in order to be practical, religion needs science.
Unfortunately, in discussions of the relationship between science and religion, we too often focus on the few areas in which they conflict. But this misses a great opportunity. By combining technological advances with moral authority, science and religion can work together to save the world.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. 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.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”