Genetics, ethics, race and playing God: StatNews profiles an intriguing researcher

Every so often, an article appears that is written with such grace and taste from an unexpected source. I’d never heard of, a year-old web site covering medicine, health care and life sciences started by John Henry, the billionaire owner of The Boston Globe.

Recently, it produced a piece about a Harvard genetics professor, who seems to be an agnostic, reaching out to the religious community to explain the latest research about the human genome. It could only have been done by someone who knows the genetics field but who could also grasp the theological objections by people not so familiar with it.

We are talking about big, big questions here.

RANDALLSTOWN, Md. -- Is the human genome sacred? Does editing it violate the idea that we’re made in God’s image or, perhaps worse, allow us to “play God”?
It’s hard to imagine weightier questions. And so to address them, Ting Wu is starting small.
Last month, the geneticist was here in a conference room outside Baltimore, its pale green walls lined with mirrors, asking pastors from area black churches to consider helping her.
Wu’s research focuses on the nitty-gritty of the genome; her lab at Harvard Medical School studies the positioning and behavior of chromosomes. But she’s also interested in improving the public’s understanding of genetics. She has gone to classrooms and briefed congressional aides. She has advised the team behind “Grey’s Anatomy.”
At a time of unprecedented access to genetic tests and plummeting costs for genetic sequencing, Wu believes people should know what scientific advances mean for them. The challenge is empowering communities that are skeptical of science because they have been underserved or even mistreated in the past.

The writer cuts to the chase, explaining that the issue is genome editing.

Wu’s outreach to faith groups comes as advances in genetics are forcing scientists to grapple with the power of their newly discovered technology. The issue driving much of the ethical debate these days is genome-editing, which has become much simpler and more efficient with a tool called CRISPR.
Religious leaders and bioethicists have debated genome editing for decades, but it’s largely been a theoretical consideration. CRISPR makes once-theoretical notions -- say, editing the genomes of embryos -- a very real possibility. (Those changes are called “germline” edits and would be passed on to future generations.) It’s a revolution that’s being driven by scientists like Wu’s husband, famed geneticist and her Harvard Medical School colleague George Church.

The writer quoted a decent cross section of institutions and people who know genetics and theology for an audience I’m guessing hears very little about religion, much less religious peoples’ doubts about where science could be leading people.

My only complaint is the article is too short! I wish there could have been more of a profile on this scientist similar to the one done on Feng Zhang a year ago on the same site. What makes Wu tick? I never felt I got a glimpse into her as a person. What led her to start an organization that tries to educate people on genetics?

I also wondered if it had been assembled too quickly. For instance, why quote Francis Collins from a Buzzfeed piece? Certainly Collins is reachable by phone for a more original quote. I would have liked some quotes from evangelical Protestants on this issue as well as Roman Catholics. As I re-read the piece, it seemed clear that the writer had attended a conference at which Wu spoke and assembled his piece mainly from what he picked up there plus a few phone calls.

 I hope to see more in StatNews about the faith community and genetics. There’s been some other good efforts on this front, such as this lengthy offering from the Deseret News, so there’s plenty more room for decent reporting on designer babies, embryo creation and destruction. There are more and more opportunities out there for religion writers to write on the challenging ethical frontiers in science. I'm hoping that science writers can also take the time to school themselves in religion. 

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