Adventists Explore Ethical Challenges of Human Gene Therapy

Silver Spring, Maryland, USA | ANN / Bettina Krause

Human gene therapy has the potential to both heal and harm and should be developed according to Biblical principles of the sanctity of human life, says a statement issued recently by a top Seventh-day Adventist ethics committee. 
Gene therapy-a rapidly developing medical technology that attempts to treat, and ultimately prevent, disease by altering genes in the cells of the sick person-may prove to be a revolutionary tool in alleviating human suffering, the statement says, but should be guarded against misuse. 

“Gene therapy has enormous potential,” says Adventist ethicist Dr. Anthony J. Zuccarelli, biochemistry professor at California’s Loma Linda University. Zuccarelli provided information to the Christian View of Human Life committee-a panel of health and ethics experts convened by the Adventist Church’s World Headquarters.  “Some predict that gene therapy may become almost as common as the use of antibiotics.  The diseases that may be treated by genetic therapy range from rare inherited disorders to infectious diseases, cancer and degenerative conditions often associated with aging.”

Zuccarelli adds, however, that gene therapy has been criticized as being outside the realm of proper behavior for created beings-literally an attempt at “playing God.”

“I have a personal concern with the prospect of gene therapy being extended to accomplish ‘enhancement,’” says Zuccarelli, “such as altering conditions that are not life-threatening or even disabling, including baldness, height, muscle-building, hair color, skin color, and physical appearance.”

Zuccarelli recognizes, however, that gene therapy has the potential to become an extremely positive tool in medicine’s ability to fight a broad range of diseases-from cancer to cystic fibrosis to HIV infection. “A complete list of possible uses for gene therapy would look like an encyclopedia of human ills,” he says.

In broad ethical terms, says Zuccarelli, “as long as the aim is to alleviate human suffering, genetic medicine has the same moral justification as traditional medicine.” 

In its statement on gene therapy, the Christian View of Human Life committee concluded that “decisions in this complex and evolving area should be in harmony with Biblical principles” including “honoring God’s image,” “alleviating suffering and preserving life” and “protecting human autonomy.”

Human gene therapy is currently being tested in research settings on patients who volunteer for clinical trials.  It involves introducing “therapeutic” DNA or RNA, the chemicals that make up genes, into a patient’s cells to replace defective genes or to provide supplementary genetic information to regulate the function of normal genes.  At the beginning of September, 1999, nearly 400 clinical trials had been approved worldwide, involving more than 3,200 patients.  About 70 percent of those patients are in the United States.

The full text of the committee’s statement on human gene therapy can be found online by going to www.adventist.org.[Bettina Krause]