Why the Pope Should Officially Embrace Biotechnology

Pope Francis processing into Mass at St. Peter's Square.

(© f11photo/Fotolia)


[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.

[Ed. Note: Don't miss the other perspectives in this Big Question series, from a Rabbi/M.D. and a Reverend/molecular geneticist.]

Alex Berezow
Dr. Alex Berezow is a science writer, a U.S./European political affairs writer, and Senior Fellow of Biomedical Science at the American Council on Science and Health. Formerly, he was founding editor of RealClearScience. He has published in numerous outlets, such as BBC, CNN, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and USA Today, where he serves on the Board of Contributors. He is the author of two books, Little Black Book of Junk Science and Science Left Behind, and holds a PhD in microbiology.
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!