Friday, January 23, 2015

Mutant Malaria, Designer Babies, and Ethics

Malaria that's resistant to a very successful anti-malaria drug is spreading. The good news is that scientists know where this particular strain's immunity came from.

Other scientists say that "society needs to be prepared" for designer babies, and that "it is time for a serious public debate on the issue."
  1. Malaria: Keeping Ahead of the Microbes
  2. Getting a Grip About Designer Babies

Technology and Using Our Brains

Maybe liking technology runs in the family. I've mentioned Arba Zeri Campbell, the first person in his part of the country to have a telephone, before. (August 12, 2012)

My first impulse is not fearing that we'll offend God by making lightning rods, or using the Internet. (January 25, 2014; April 27, 2014)

We've got brains, and are expected to use them. Part of our job is learning about the universe, and using that knowledge. Thinking is not a sin. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 154-159, 2292-2296)

Sometimes our curiosity gets us killed. Georg Wilhelm Richmann, for example, found out how an insulated rod reacts to a nearby thunderstorm. More accurately, other scientists did.

Professor Richmann is probably the first person to die while conducting electrical experiments.

Then there was the time scientists learned why "tickling the dragon's tail" is a bad idea. It wasn't a real dragon, survivors learned quite a bit about what extreme radiation levels do to humans, and that's another topic. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (October 17, 2014))

Thinking, Curiosity, and Ulysses

(From Google Maps, used w/o permission.)
(Casinal Pio IV, currently home of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, and the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.)

I've run into the notion that religion, Christianity in particular, is against science — and pretty much any tech invented in the last few centuries. Some of my fellow-Christians seem dedicated to maintaining this stereotype. (April 4, 2014)

Folks who express concern about thinking 'too much' are, I'm sure, sincere.

We can use our brains to rationalize acts which are not good, like slavery or genocide. The problem isn't thinking. It's part of the mess we call "original sin." (Catechism, 396-412, 2313, 2414)

Curiosity isn't a sin, either. Yes, Dante's Inferno shows Ulysses in Hell: but Dante's Malebolge is where "simple" fraud is punished. That's fraud committed without particularly malicious intent.

Ulysses shows up in the eighth trench, reserved for deceivers. He's not there because he 'tampered with things man was not supposed to know.' (January 9, 2015; August 1, 2014)

Reasoning — thinking — is part of being human. We can use our ability to reason for good or ill. It's our decisions that make a difference. (Catechism, 35-39, 1704-1707, 1950-1960)

I didn't become a Catholic because there's a science academy at the Vatican. But I don't have to check my brain at the door when I go to church. (April 27, 2012)

Mad Scientists and Ethics

Mad scientists in the movies can be entertaining.

Their real-life counterparts, like Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov: not so much.

Medical experiments at Auschwitz and Dachau, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and Willowbrook State School's Hepatitis studies don't show that science is evil.

They are, however, reminders that ethics apply to science: or should. (Catechism, 2292-2295, 2415-2418)

Since I'm a Catholic, I must believe that human life is sacred: all human life. (Catechism, 2258, 2270, 2273, 2276-2279)

A big problem with in vitro fertilization, for example, is that usually only one of the people conceived live. The 'extras' — don't. (Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the dignity of procreation — Replies to Certain Questions of the Day, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1987))

Wanting a child and not being able to conceive is distressing. Wanting to raise children is a good thing: but "the end does not justify the means." (Catechism, 1753, 2201-2203)

Expecting knowledge, or anything else, to take God's place would be daft: and against the rules. That doesn't make seeking knowledge bad. Being curious and developing new tools is part of being human. (Catechism, 2113, 2292-2295)

We're made in the image of God, rational creatures whose job description includes stewardship of the physical world. (Genesis 1:27-28, Psalms 19:2; Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 282-289, 341, 373, 17302375)

The trick is remembering that ethics matter: no matter how curious we are, or how much we want something.
"...if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God...."
("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word-Gaudium et Spes," 36 (December 7, 1965))

1. Malaria: Keeping Ahead of the Microbes

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Malaria parasites - seen tightly packed in this red blood cell - have evolved resistance to artemisinin"
(BBC News))
"Genetics of malaria drug resistance revealed"
Rebecca Morelle (January 19, 2015)

"The genetics underpinning resistance to a frontline malaria drug, artemisinin, have been revealed, scientists say.

"In South East Asia, malaria parasites have developed tolerance to the treatment, and there are fears that this will spread.

"Now, in the largest genetic study to date, scientists have identified mutations in the parasite genome that are linked to resistance.

"The study is published in Nature Genetics.

"The researchers say the findings will help them to identify areas where artemisinin resistance could spread.

"Lead author Dr Olivo Miotto from the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Research Unit (MORU), in Thailand, said: 'Artemisinin is the best drug we have had for a very long time, and we want to continue this success story.

"'And for that its effectiveness has to be protected and sustained.'

"When the first malaria drug, chloroquine, was developed, researchers thought that the disease would be eradicated within years.

"But the malaria parasite has proved far tougher than they ever imagined. Drug after drug has been rendered useless as the parasite has evolved to evade treatment...."
"Evolved?" I've been told that evolution is the "religion of the antichrist," some folks think the Pope is the Antichrist, and that's another yet topic. (January 2, 2014; July 17, 2011)

I'm a Catholic, so I believe that God created a good world: one that's getting better, changing. Scientists use the word "evolution" when discussing one facet of this "state of journeying." (Genesis 1:31; Catechism, 282-308)

That gets me back to malaria, almost.

Microbes evolve quickly, partly because their generations are very short. On top of that, bacteria can swap genes with quite a few other critters. It's called conjugation, transformation, and transduction: so bacteria evolve really fast.

About a century back, antibiotics looked like the ultimate answer to disease: then we found out about viruses, and microbes developed resistance to the drugs. Informed speculation about viruses started around 1880s, and that's yet again another topic.

Ancient Romans thought malaria was caused by noxious fumes form swamps. Folks in the Renaissance apparently figured the same thing. "Malaria" means "bad air," "mal aria" in Medieval Italian.

The Romans were right, sort of. Most mosquitoes lay eggs in stagnant water, and Anopheles mosquitoes spread malaria. Malaria was around long before we were. Scientists found malaria microbes in 30,000,000-year-old mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes and Microbes

Mosquitoes have been around a lot longer: about 260,000,000 years. Anopheles mosquitoes branched off upwards of 120,000,000 years ago. Anopheles is the type that carries Plasmodium microbes that cause malaria. (June 13, 2014)

The four or five species of Plasmodium that cause malaria in humans aren't bacteria. They're parasitic Protozoans: unicellular eukaryotic critters.

In other words, one Protozoa is a single cell with a membrane around its nucleus. There will not be test on this. I'm a recovering English teacher — emphasis on 'recovering.'

Malaria starts out feeling like the flu. Some folks who get malaria recover, some die. The disease messes with the brain, spleen, liver, lungs - - - among other major systems.

The BBC article focuses on efforts to understand an artemisinin-resistant sort of malaria microbe. It looks like mutations on a gene called kelch13 give microbes this resistance.

So far, these resistant microbes have reached Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar/Burma. The BBC article says that resistant malaria parasites show up in the same place: the Cambodia-Thailand border.

Preventing, or at least slowing down, the spread of artemisinin-resistant malaria seems like a good idea.

So, I think, is finding a way so eradicate malaria entirely. We've done that before, with smallpox: and I'm pretty sure that life on Earth will continue, even if we kill off one more disease microbe, or the five species of mosquito that infect humans with it. (February 12, 2014)

Was eradicating smallpox the right thing to do? After all, Edmund Massey, an English preacher, said that God wants us to be scared of getting sick. I am not making this up:
"...The fear of disease is a happy restraint to men. If men were more healthy, 'tis a great chance they would be less righteous. Let the Atheist and the Scoffer inoculate. Their hope is in and for only this life. Let us bless God for the Afflictions He sends upon us, and grant us patience under them...."
("Against the Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation," Edmund Massey (1722))
Then there was Pope Pius VII, who said vaccination is "a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence." That was in 1814. (February 12, 2014)

Life and health are "precious gifts." We're expected to keep ourselves healthy: within reason. Healing folks who are ill is a good idea, too. So is caring for folks who are dying. (Catechism, 2278-2279, 2288-2289)

That reminds me of Father Damien of Molokai. He's Saint Damien now, and that's still another topic. (May 11, 2010)

2. Getting a Grip About Designer Babies

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"'Designer babies' debate should start, scientists say"
James Gallagher, BBC News (January 18, 2015)

"Rapid progress in genetics is making 'designer babies' more likely and society needs to be prepared, leading scientists have told the BBC.

"Dr Tony Perry, a pioneer in cloning, has announced precise DNA editing at the moment of conception in mice.

"He said huge advances in the past two years meant 'designer babies' were no longer HG Wells territory.

"Other leading scientists and bioethicists argue it is time for a serious public debate on the issue.

"Designer babies - genetically modified for beauty, intelligence or to be free of disease - have long been a topic of science fiction.

"Dr Perry, who was part of the teams to clone the first mice and pigs, said the prospect was still fiction, but science was rapidly catching up to make elements of it possible.

"In the journal Scientific Reports, he details precisely editing the genome of mice at the point DNA from the sperm and egg come together...."
At first glance, 'designer babies' sounds like a wonderful idea. Someone would go to a doctor, specify hair and eye color, intelligence, level of attractiveness, athletic prowess, and other traits: and get a 'perfect child.'

Maybe the kids would even come with a guarantee: so if they didn't meet expectations, they could be returned. Another, more expensive, option might be to order twins: take one home, and have the health service keep the other one as a source of spare parts, in case the 'real' child had a serious accident or disease.

Either way, that approach would treat people as commodities: property. That's unacceptable. Humans, no matter how old we are, are people. (Catechism, 357, 1929, 2258, 2270-2279)

Wanting to raise a child is a good thing. But children are people, not property. Nobody has a 'right to a child.' (Catechism, 2207-2208, 2378)

So, do I see research aimed at changing human genetic code as evil? It's not that simple.

'Curing' Creativity?

I see problems — and opportunities — with 'designer babies.'

Some genetic disorders like haemophilia and Tay-Sachs disease, are often fatal. Others, like Muenke and Williams are more like disorders or disabilities.

ADD, Asperger syndrome, or whatever it is I've got, may be a genetic glitch, too. So may be whatever went wrong with my hips. From some viewpoints, I'm a mess. (February 12, 2011)

I don't think I'd mind having lived with two normal hip sockets: but I'd have missed many learning experiences along the way.

At first glance, being 'cured' of ADD/Asperger's/whatever seems like a good idea. Maybe it would be. My attitude toward major depression is much less ambivalent. I'm certainly not going to stop taking the powerful antidepressant and other drugs that help me control my brain. (December 14, 2014; August 17, 2014)

But I wouldn't want to be "normal" if it meant losing the way I see the world.

I'm not in the same league as Paddy Considine, Johnny Dean, and Luke Jackson, but I suspect that some quirky neurological kits have an 'up' side. (September 1, 2013; December 9, 2012)

Then there's what Aristotle said: "There is no great genius without a mixture of madness," except my language wouldn't exist for a couple thousand years in his day. I don't think he'd have used Latin, either, although it sounds cool in that language: "Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementia."

Wrenching myself back on-topic: Since I'm Catholic, I must see humans as equal; and diverse. Each of us is a person, made in the image of God, creatures with rational souls. We're not all alike, though: and that's how it's supposed to be. (Catechism, 1934-1938)

I agree with Dr. Tony Perry: " is time for a serious public debate on the issue" of 'designer babies.'

I suppose discussion of genetics and bioethics among Catholics isn't 'public.' It's certainly not the sort of thing you're likely to hear on talk radio, and that's — what else? — another topic.

As far as I can tell, none of what I'll quote near the end of this post is definitive: but I think it makes sense.

Basically, learning more about how our genes work is a good idea. We're getting to the point where people conceived with disorders like Tay-Sachs disease can live past childhood. This is a good thing.

We're also close to being able to purge unwanted traits from humanity. This looks good on paper. In practice, applied eugenics has a bad track record. Really bad. (December 5, 2014; November 5, 2012)

Finally, here's part of what I found on the Vatican's website:
"...In theory, it is possible to use gene therapy on two levels: somatic cell gene therapy and germ line cell therapy. Somatic cell gene therapy seeks to eliminate or reduce genetic defects on the level of somatic cells, that is, cells other than the reproductive cells, but which make up the tissue and organs of the body. It involves procedures aimed at certain individual cells with effects that are limited to a single person. Germ line cell therapy aims instead at correcting genetic defects present in germ line cells with the purpose of transmitting the therapeutic effects to the offspring of the individual....

"...For a moral evaluation the following distinctions need to be kept in mind. Procedures used on somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit. Such actions seek to restore the normal genetic configuration of the patient or to counter damage caused by genetic anomalies or those related to other pathologies....

"...The moral evaluation of germ line cell therapy is different. Whatever genetic modifications are effected on the germ cells of a person will be transmitted to any potential offspring. Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and as yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny....

"...The question of using genetic engineering for purposes other than medical treatment also calls for consideration. Some have imagined the possibility of using techniques of genetic engineering to introduce alterations with the presumed aim of improving and strengthening the gene pool. ... Apart from technical difficulties and the real and potential risks involved, such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities, while privileging qualities that happen to be appreciated by a certain culture or society...."
("Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," William Cardinal Levada, Prefect; Luis F. Ladaria, S.I., Titular Archbishop of Thibica, Secretary; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (September 8, 2008))

"...The uniqueness of each human person, in part constituted by his biogenetic characteristics and developed through nurture and growth, belongs intrinsically to him and cannot be instrumentalized in order to improve some of these characteristics...."

"...Therapeutic interventions serve to restore the physical, mental and spiritual functions, placing the person at the center and fully respecting the finality of the various levels in man in relation to those of the person. Possessing a therapeutic character, medicine that serves man and his body as ends in themselves respects the image of God in both...."
("Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, International Theological Commission (July 23, 2004))
Cloning, gene therapy, and being human; Catholic viewpoints:
My take on what we can do, and what we're learning to do:

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.