Scientific Progress or A Step Too Far? (RJS)

We’ve been concentrating on the question of Adam lately, and it is time for something of a break. This is an amazing time to be a scientist – there is so much going on and so much progress being made in so many areas of study. One fascinating source for brief general public level insights into these new developments is the ScienceNow section of Science Magazine Online. This section reports on advances from a number of areas and is not limited to reports published in Science.

An interesting report in ScienceNow last week, Pushing Light Beyond Light Speed, described a method to make it appear that a light pulse travels faster than the speed of light, arriving as much as 200 nanoseconds earlier than it “should”. This is an apparent violation of special relativity, not a real one. Relativity holds. But the study is still fascinating. We can manipulate and shape light to improve on the purely “natural” properties of incoherent light and perhaps improve optical communication technologies. Cool stuff. I don’t work in the area of the this report, but we do use optical pulse shaping to manipulate the interaction between light and molecules, light and matter. The picture is of a laser in my lab.

Manipulation of light and the interaction between light and matter doesn’t raise many ethical questions. This isn’t true in biology though. The breadth of advance in biological sciences is truly phenomenal and the rate of progress can leave us in the dust. This is true in the study of evolution, genomics, environment, and paleontology. But it goes beyond study to include manipulation, producing or modifying living cells and living creatures. In this case the pace of research and the range of possibility can raise ethical questions. Questions we need a scientifically literate population to digest and deal with.

Here is an example of a worm made to glow, ScienceShot: Worms Enter the Synthetic Age. These researchers produced a worm including proteins with an unnatural extra amino acid linked to a fluorescent molecule. The cells containing this protein glow red under light.  The worm lives, and can be studied in ways never before possible.

The above example is relatively innocuous – but the following report discusses an example that has more potential use and more potential concern: Suicide-Bombing Bacteria Could Fight Infections. A bacteria, E. coli, was modified to include synthetic genetic code that allowed P. aeruginosa to identify itself and also gave E. coli a gene for making  a compound toxic to P. aeruginosa, and a suicide gene to self-destruct under the right circumstance. The modified E. coli would then be attracted to the infecting bacteria, produce a toxin, and self-destruct and destroy the infecting bacteria. This is an early trial with many difficulties remaining to be solved, but illustrates the potential power.

What do you think of research like this?

Does this raise images of Frankenstein’s monster or B science fiction thrillers and mad scientists? Or is it exciting progress?

Are we venturing into a realm where we should not go – manipulating God’s creation?

One last story involving genetic manipulation: ‘Serial Killer’ Immune Cells Put Cancer in Remission. Genetic manipulation of human T Cells, on the front line of our immune systems, created designer cells capable of hunting down and destroying the cancerous B Cells causing chronic lymphocytic leukemia. In a human trial with three patients where other traditional treatments were no longer effective the leukemia was wiped out and all three are now in remission. This is early and much remains to be studied, but the results exceeded expectations and the potential is huge. The potential impact extends beyond this one disease to include other designer T Cells to attack other cancers and other diseases.

The new therapy isn’t just a potential boon for CLL patients, says oncologist Walter Urba of Providence Cancer Center in Portland, Oregon. The success of the clinical trial could translate to other cancer types. “You can now try to switch this receptor to recognize a different target,” says Urba, who specializes in cancer immunotherapy. “Let’s make a breast cancer-specific receptor, and a prostate cancer-specific receptor, and a colon cancer-specific receptor. The potential here is huge to apply this to different tumor types.”

And Urba cautions that the current results are based on a small sample size. More work is needed to verify that the treatment is broadly successful in all CLL patients and that stray cancer cells don’t eventually mutate so that they avoid displaying the molecule targeted by the T cells.

“This is really exciting,” he says. “The results are very promising. But it’s also important to remember that this is just a couple of patients and they’ve only been followed for a short time. We need to see more studies now.”

Wow – we are entering a new age of potential, and it may rival the advent of antibiotics as far as human health goes. Anyone who knows someone with cancer or who has died of cancer should be excited at the possibilities.

Does this kind of application change your view of the ethics of genetic manipulation?

When is it a step too far? Why?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Rick

    “When is it a step too far? Why?”

    I would like to know how your non-Christian colleagues might answer those questions.

  • rjs


    It varies – many are quite concerned with ethical questions and potential harm. Others would pursue what ever can be pursued.

  • Wm

    It seems that the pursuit of science – wherever it takes us – would fall under the ‘first amendment right’ of freedom of expression. 🙂

  • PSF

    A good book by an evangelical thinking progressively on this topic is Changing Human Nature by James Peterson (Roanoke College), published by Eerdmans.


  • MatthewS

    Exciting and uncertainty are two words that come to mind.

    I live in an area known for orthopedic products and techniques. There are doctors here who put the engineering in bioengineering and even just some of the routine things they do with bones, joints, ligaments, etc. seem pretty amazing to me. They engineer and build solutions inside human bodies. I don’t know that there are many ethical concerns raised by this, it just seems amazing.

    NPR had a piece a few weeks ago about a company that is genetically modifying mosquitoes, with the possibility of wiping out the pests (with the goal of wiping out dengue fever) in huge areas in the wild. But as Michael Crichton always harped, what might be the unknown consequences of doing this?

    My first thought usually goes to the scenarios where non-native species have been released in an area and it ends up wiping out local species due to lack of natural predator – those kind of things. I also think of the tower of Babel when God seems to state that the sky is the limit when people get their heads together. But in a positive way, it seems there is much good that can be accomplished in spite of the possible harmful uses. I’m back to exciting and uncertain – I find it very exciting and worrying all at the same time.

  • MatthewS

    Cool pic, btw, rjs!

  • Rick

    RJS #2-

    That is a major issue going forward. My initial thought is, “what does it matter what I think. Certain scientists will plow forward anyway”.

    Differing “worldviews” (for lack of a better term) will probably cause sides to talk past each other. The only practical option would be petitioning for government intervention.

    There is amazing intellegence working on such projects. I am hopeful about those things that can really benefit people (and the world). However, I am concerned there is not enough amazing wisdom.

  • Randall

    In the movie MIMIC the suicide gene fails to inhibit the life span and apparently the sterile subjects become fertile as well, a great exchange in the movie, researcher: “But the subjects all self-terminated after 6 months in the lab”, the elder professor: ” Awe yes, but you released them out into the world, a much bigger lab.” Things seldom go exactly as planned, when you modify organisms, that can have dire consequences that are entirely unforseeable. As an engineer, I still like attempting the risky and ambitious endeavors, but I have made mistakes that could have resulted in disaster. Playing with life-forms is an area I think where the dangers and risks are particularly high.

  • Amos Paul

    I simply wish science’s efforts could be more practically focused on the problems that need solving sooner rather than later.

    Beyond that… eh. I just hope that researchers are required to get governmental permissions before doing crazy things. There was one guy at TED awhile ago that wanted to practice using volcanic-style ash in our own atmosphere to regulate the climate. Seriously

  • dopderbeck

    People have been engaged in “genetic manipulation” since the dawn of agriculture and animal husbandry, through selective breeding. It seems to me that genetic manipulation per se is not problematic. There are of course questions of unforseen consequences and those need to be considered carefully.

    The deeper questions IMHO are ones of motivation, particularly when we talk about the value of a human being. Transhumanism makes me nervous because of its obvious affinity for things like Hitler’s eugenics program.

  • rjs


    I think there is a significant difference between selective breeding and the kind of engineering talked about in the articles I’ve linked. I don’t think there is an intrinsic problem with it – but this kind of engineering involves producing artificial constructs, not selecting for naturally occurring traits. We’re not comparing apples to oranges; or navel oranges to clementines … we’re comparing apples to cheese whiz (or worse).

    The last article on the killer T Cells … this is impressive.

  • DRT

    We have always manipulated creation. Choosing a spouse is the usual way.

    The concern is the ability to manipulate creation without understanding all (most) of the potential consequences creates the ethical issue as to how much testing is required before use. We all know that enough testing will never be done, so we are playing russian roulette.

  • DRT

    rjs, I want to push back on your #11. We are chemically altering life when we use anti-bacterial soap. We chemically alter life when we give cows antibiotics. Is there really a difference? I still think it is a matter of speed outpacing testing. Discretion would be the best part of valor in these cases.

  • rjs


    What do you mean by chemically altering?

  • I’m not quite sure this issue necessarily has an ethical component – in the sense that seeking the knowledge to manipulate cancer cells, etc., involves questions of right or wrong. What makes the ethical question rise up is what can be done with such work for other, not intended, effects. In my ministry group, anger isn’t itself wrong, but how we react/handle/whatever. There is also the idea that knowledge = power It is fortuitous that Scot posted the Jesus in our own image along with this one.

  • Randall

    Ok, the use of antibiotics is the introduction of antibodies into a system from which it was previously absent BUT the antibodies are the result of a naturally operating immune system to an invader. This isn’t even in the same church as making new forms of life or gene-splicing. If bacteria produced a immune response in a cow, that anitbody could be used to help a person fight an infection. Mixing algae, seaweed, goat semen, and tomatoes is not even remotely comparable to microscopic animal husbandry. The farmers can tell you that goats and tomatoes can’t breed and reproduce with each other. This is the introduction of new life forms from bits of existing living things. Cattle breeding produces cows or it went badly, this occasionaly mixes life forms that exhibit qualities none of the contributors naturally possess. I’m not making a value statement on it but this isn’t cross-breeding under a microscope unless you redefine the term breeding.

  • Randall

    In #16 above I meant vaccines rather than anitbiotics, sorry. The antibiotics rather kill the intended organism when successful and sometimes cause it to develop immunities when unsuccessful. The widespread use of them can be unwise and ill-advised, but it isn’t changing life directly. Perhaps their overuse contributes to some need for more extreme measures such as is being discussed. When I was 16 I would have supported anything you can do in a lab; but, I’m less convinced of our wisdom and self-control now. All our great monster movies begin with someone working on a good thing with a good goal only to create a cure worse than the disease. I think we play this out in life over and over.

  • DRT

    I probably should refrain from posting when I don’t have time to respond promptly, so sorry for the delay.

    In Chemically Altering, I am trying to diminish the distinguish the difference between genetic manipulation and other forms of chemical interference with life processes. What i am trying to avoid is the distinction between so called natural processes and life process and chemical processes.

    I am quite supportive of anyone wanting to refute this difference here and would actually like to hear the rebuttal, but work is a bit all encompassing these days and I may not respond.


  • Randy Gabrielse

    Two problems have arisen from “Doing what we can because we can.” The first is secrecy, such as when the government declares secret and classified developments that the public doesn’t know exist. The second is greater: Power. This includes Monsanto’s power over farmers who try to save seeds and grow crops in traditional ways. Now that the US Supreme Court has allowed the patenting of life forms and seems to see no limits on their growth and profit claims, we really do have dangerous things on our hands.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • DRT

    …and goodness, I just realized that the Steelers are on and I am worrying about JC instead of football.

  • Edward Vos

    God gave us the ability to learn and to explore, to do otherwise would go against our nature to use science to enhance our lives.

    An old saying comes to mind,”If God didn’t create us with wings maybe we weren’t meant to fly.” My point being that God gave us a mind to understand the science of His creation, would we then realy want to put the breaks on all our scientific discoveries if they could impact our lives for the good?

    Granted medical ethics need to be in place, and theology is a good starting point for discussing the ethics behind medical discoveries, but theology should not hinder our scientific discoveries because of some fear that they will not match up to our limited understanding of God.

    Altering genetic codes and the ethics relating to these scientific possililities can coexist in our limited scope of theology. If we follow the Jesus Creed example would we be using modified genetics for the good of others or ourselves? This is the key question.