The Holy See has just organized an unprecedented symposium on molecular and cellular engineering. The goal: to keep control of a constantly evolving science, which requires the development and updating of solid ethical safeguards for scientists.
“’This science is rolling; the train is moving. But instead of lamenting over this, we need to take the initiative and hop on that train, intervene, and, if needed, divert it onto another track,’ said Ralf Stutzki, head of the ethics Molecular Systems Engineering at the National Center of Competence in Research at the University of Basel, Switzerland.” He considers it urgent for the Church to help researchers formulate ethical standards to guide their work.
This is the whole meaning of the first international conference on the “Ethics of Engineering Life,” jointly organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life, Molecular Systems Engineering, and the Bambino Gesù children’s hospital in Rome, on September 26 and 27, 2022.
“To address the ethical aspects of ‘engineering’ molecules, cells and cellular functions, the academy said, the conference invited scientists and stakeholders involved in developing and applying approaches that ‘edit and control’ biological systems; ethicists; philosophers; communicators; and others.”
In his introductory remarks, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Academy – challenged for certain progressive positions – said that the objective of this meeting was to “reflect on today’s scientific-technological developments, particularly in the area of life and health.”
At the present time, with the aim of treating very diverse pathologies, research has succeeded in manufacturing cellular micro-tissues from adult or embryonic stem cells: in the latter case, the Church opposes this practice because it involves the destruction of the embryo, while it supports research on adult stem cells for therapeutic purposes.
But the digital age is moving the cursor ever further, as Hans Clever, Dutch geneticist, director of pharma Research and Early Development (pRED) at Roche, a powerful pharmaceutical company based in Switzerland, explained in his speech.
Indeed, scientists cross ethical standards and work on embryonic stem cells and have now manage to create “embryoids,” i.e., “an embryo-like structure of aggregated pluripotent stem cells . . . [that] lacks the essential cell types needed to develop beyond this early stage.”
Hans Clever states, “as research advances, these embryoids will look more and more like real embryos, which will bring up even more ethical concerns. There we need really strong guidelines.”
Present at the colloquium, Marie-Jo Thiel, a medical doctor who teaches ethics at the University of Strasbourg, recalled important contribution that Catholic theology can and must bring to this specialized matter: “‘Values and ethics are not limits or obstacles to innovation and change; they represent the compass indicating what responsible, inclusive and sustainable ways’ are best for the future, she said, quoting a 2021 report by the European Commission on ethics and science.”
Hans Clever summarized the problem well, according to him, “scientists are not the best ethicists, at least biologists are not the best ethicists, in general, because they're just curious, they want to know the next step, they have not learned easily to step back,” he said. But some scientists have learned it is important to involve ethicists in their meetings…to help them ‘step back’ and see what it is they really want to do.”
Even if it means running into the wall: “Knowledge without conscience is but the ruin of the soul,” Rabelais already warned in his time. It remains to be seen whether the echo of this symposium in the scientific world will live up to the hopes of its organizers.