We all know that over the past years, gene therapy has played a significant role in the treatment of human disease. Today, there are numerous approved therapies available, treating various conditions and helping even the most vulnerable recipients to improve their quality of life. With Molecular Systems Engineering the story goes a bit different. Here, the research focuses on engineering cells, sometimes copying their ways and developing their properties further; we engineer cellular systems by introducing entirely new and complex functions – and this at a stunning speed which makes it very difficult for ethics to get involved and to keep up with the pace.
In a poem, Literature Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse once gave a beautiful analysis of the profound potential inherent in every beginning:
“A magic dwells in each beginning, protecting us, telling us how to live.”
(“Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.”)
Considering the enormous progress Molecular Systems Engineering has made over the past years I am afraid that it is too late for such magic in our discourse. Some of the fundamental research objectives no longer can be subject to groundbreaking ethical debate which can effectively weigh pros and cons; 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 unto another track. We will indeed have to lead a consequentialist debate, weigh the prospective good and bad outcome and make brave decisions. But it will be worthwhile.
The focus of our debate no longer lies on the question if we should put engineered molecular or cellular constructs into human bodies but rather on how we want this to happen; and how we can agree on a catalogue of binding guidelines that will secure health and well-being for the vulnerable recipients of this engineering life technology. There is a lot at stake as Molecular Systems Engineering challenges our existing concepts of human identity, personhood and the conditio humana per se.
The fact that we are willing to offer deliberate engineering of human beings means, in consequence, that we must come to terms as to what exactly our goals are and where the limits lay.
Whenever it comes to research capable of triggering paradigm shift, we need to invite society at large into the process of ethical reflection: scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, politicians, artists, the young generation, the vulnerable and other representatives and groups. In the process of ethical decision-making, each stakeholder involved must own an equal share, on par, eye to eye, with each vote counting as one.
The scientific community plays a leading role in building this framework for societal discourse. It must open its labs and fancy new ideas which in the end may help us bridge the existing communication gap between the engineering life sciences and society at large. We urgently need to synchronize the speed of thought and provide equal access to knowledge despite the tremendous translational efforts this will take.
Rome, 26 September 2022
Ralf Stutzki, Head of Ethics, NCCR MSE, University of Basel, CH
I am pleased to offer my very cordial greetings to all present here in Rome and to all who are joining us online. In addition, I would like to offer particular thanks to our rapporteurs for generously sharing the results of their commitment and research.
The Pontifical Academy for Life is also very pleased at how the organization of this event reflects cooperation among the Academy, the Basel-based National Centres of Competence in Research - Molecular Systems Engineering (NCCR MSE), the University of Basel, the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital in Rome.
The topic we will address is central to the Pontifical Academy’s research and reflective thinking. We concentrate on the promotion of scientific-technological development, particularly in the area of life and health. We focus on an integral vision of the human person and of a society that is ever more just. Today, our commitment is inseparable from that care for our “common home” in which every form of life has its proper place on the planet, as Pope Francis insists with great vigor, especially in the Encyclical Laudato si'.
The topics that you will address in our conference are truly important. On the one hand, they deal with the borderlands of scientific research, given that biology and genetics have gone beyond simply describing phenomena. Now, they can transform the genome of living organisms, through techniques like gene editing and the production of organoids. On the other hand, they force us to deal with the interactions among science, technology, and society that have been sorely tried by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is therefore most important that we promote mutual knowledge and understanding among science, ethics, and civil authority.
This is a cultural task that must be studied more deeply, and in manner that is both serious and credible. In fact, the ways in which the scientific community reaches consensus on the value of experimental evidence reflect not just rigorous rationality but also, and necessarily, practical observation within a given cultural framework. The importance of culture—of a framework of symbols, beliefs and practices that give form and substance to the significant elements of life in a community—is often overlooked. We tend to consider science as only an exercise of abstract rationality that relies on rigorous experimentation. We forget that lived experience is the implicit background of every exercise of reason, and that reason always remains anchored to the basic elements of community understanding.
It is culture that shapes the conscience of individuals, who are always in relationship with, and responsible for, each other. In this context, one cannot “…continue to believe that facts [of which scientific knowledge and the results of its application are a part] stand up all by themselves, without a shared world, without institutions, without a public life,…” (LATOUR, Down to Earth, 25). If we see that scientific activity is integrated into a particular culture, we must consider that integration as a necessary starting point, without assuming it as a bias to be only eliminated. The important point is that between the cultures of peoples and the development of concepts there is a circular relationship. This relationship has a decisive role in arriving at a consensus on evidence and in establishing relationships with other forms of knowledge. I think this is why so-called “post-normal” science insists on the importance of involving as partners in dialogue persons who are outside the circle of experts. This ensures that scientific conclusions and practices will be subject to ever wider review, in an approach where knowledge is “co-constructed.” This will not only facilitate a deeper understanding and wider acceptance of scientific discoveries, but also an orientation of scientific-technological entities toward the real needs of society and the dignity of people, thus tending to counteract market greed.
In this perspective, I consider the panel where you will discuss the different religions as very important. You will need to consider the way in which they approach the questions raised by new perspectives on scientific research and on the socio-cultural repercussions of that research. But you will also need to consider what role they are called to play in clarifying the meaning of scientific discoveries.
I repeat my cordial welcome to you, and I hope that these days will be fruitful for you and for the scientific community that is engaged in a research journey that will be of real support for the whole human family.
Rome, 26 September 2022
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President, Pontifical Academy for Life, Vatican City