Religious leaders take on the scientists who would play God

The US/ genetic engineering
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The Independent Online
BY THE END of the century it could be standard surgical procedure to transplant hearts from pigs to humans. Researchers experimenting with the infusion of human genes into pigs hope that within two or three years they will come up with a heart that, in contrast to previous experiments involving baboon organs, the human body will not reject.

"The process we know as xenotransplantation, using a transgenic animal as an organ donor, is but one aspect of the revolution under way in medical science because of the advances in genetic research," said Ernest Prentice, associate dean for research at Nebraska University Medical Centre. "In the next decade or two we expect to come up with numerous cures and preventions of previously untreatable illnesses."

Cancer might be one: scientists on a Massachusetts farm have been tampering with the genes of a herd of Alpine New Zealand goats. The protein in the milk the goats produce now contains antibodies which show promise of yielding an effective anti-cancer drug. Elsewhere in America scientists are working to isolate the genes that contain the essence of breast, colon and prostate cancer; of Alzheimer's disease, cystic fibrosis, schizophrenia, influenza and Aids.

A brave new world beckons in which people will live longer, suffer less. But not all believe this happy prospect is cause for unqualified celebration.

"Aldous Huxley's vision was once prophetic," said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists' Christian Life Commission. "Today it hovers on the horizon. The question we have to ask is, just how much human genetic material has to be placed into an animal before that animal becomes less than human but more than animal?" Dr Land is one of the prime movers behind an extraordinarily wide-ranging ecumenical movement united in the belief that the genetic engineers are engaging in sin, that in seeking to subordinate the ways of God to run the biotechnology industry is displaying a potentially catastrophic lack of reverence for human life.

Last month a 200-strong coalition of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders presented the US Congress with a joint statement demanding an end to a practice that researchers in the field consider critical to the successful prosecution of their work: the patenting of newly discovered human genes and transgenic animals. The Pope, backed by 100 American bishops who signed the statement, is expected to deliver his own rebuke soon.

Dr Land, to whose church President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich both belong, works on the theological premise that animals and humans are creatures of God: "pre-owned beings", not man-made inventions. "We see altering new life forms as a revolt against God's sovereignty and the attempt by humankind to usurp God and be God."

Within 15 years scientists say they expect to have identified every gene in the human body, meaning that they will be able to tell exactly which gene yields what human characteristic, be it skin tone, degree of aggression or predisposition to a specific disease. "The temptation will be to design boutique children," Dr Land said. "When we can identify and manipulate these genes we'll be in a position to create a nation of people with blue eyes, tall and thin with high cheekbones. Obviously gene technology also carries with it the tremendous possibility for good. But who is going to take these decisions? By granting the patents on these genes to individuals and commercial companies you're leaving the decisions to the free market. The prospects are nightmarish."

Nextran, based in Princeton, leads the field in explorations into the transgenic pig, a practice which Dr Land believes devalues human life and "represents a form of genetic bestality".

Jeffrey Platt, professor in experimental surgery at Duke University, heads Nextran's research. "Literally thousands are dying or being severely debilitated because of the chronic shortage of human organs," he said. "One alternative is to genetically engineer the organ of an animal. The hurdle we are trying to overcome is the immunological reaction when any foreign organ is sown into a body, whether human or animal. Pigs are about the right size for human transplantation, and we have found that they tend to catch illnesses we can prevent, which is not always the case with other animals. What we're learning about the pig's heart is applicable to other organs, like the kidneys and the lungs."

Would Dr Land's nightmare, in which scientists would be in a position to produce made-to-order people, come true? "What we're talking about is humans who are dying," said Dr Platt. "The rest is make-believe. We all have fears, but usually knowledge is the best cure for fear. I can't put myself in the shoes of the ignorant. There are a million genes or more in the human body and there are various ways in which they can be manipulated. The issue is, what's the purpose of what you're doing? In our case it's to save lives." And, as Nextran's vice-president, John Logan, acknowledges, to make money: "We'd hope for a reasonable return because we'd charge for raising the animal in specific conditions and we'd charge for the organ because we've invested money in research and the infrastructure of growing the animal."

America's religious leaders, however, do not believe that a field of research with such potentially explosive implications for the human race - not to say subversive implications for religion - should be left to the free market. They mean to preach from every pulpit in the land the message that all further genetic research must be subject to the strictest public regulation.

All of which creates a moral dilemma for Americans, a people who like to think that they have found an equilibrium between the competing calls of their faith in God and their no less firmly held belief in the sanctity of free enterprise.

"Americans," observed Dr Land, "are not very comfortable talking about things outside a utilitarian framework. I mean questions of right or wrong, good or bad. We're calling them to that sort of discussion."

Abortion has proved the most divisive issue in America in recent years, leading Christian fanatics to the extreme of murdering medical practitioners. Did Dr Land anticipate that genetic engineering would generate as much heat? "We are on the threshold of mind-bending debates about the nature of human and animal life. We do not feel it can be left to scientists or corporations or private individuals: the public must have the final say. In a few years this is going to dwarf the pro-life debate."