Amazing Grace

Scientists have genetically engineered a new kind of goat. With her wobbly legs and soft white hair, Grace looks like any other newborn ruminant. But the milk this kid gives one day may be worth millions. According to the Wall Street Journal, Grace was genetically altered to produce a medicine consisting of a partly human protein in her milk. By her first birthday, Grace is expected to lactate enough to produce a kilogram of an experimental anticancer drug. Grace is the latest in a line of genetically engineered animals who grow life-saving drugs right in their own bodies. Here's how the genetic technology works. Many proteins have medicinal functions, such as insulin and human growth hormone. Scientists can now identify which section of the DNA molecule contains the code for some of these proteins. If they cut out that section of human DNA and graft it into the DNA of another animal, it will function there exactly as it does in humans: directing the production of the same protein. Scientists first grafted human DNA into tiny bacteria. It worked so well that pharmaceutical companies now cultivate huge vats of genetically altered bacteria to grow human proteins for medicinal purposes. But cultivating bacteria is not easy: The vats must be monitored as carefully as a hospital intensive care unit. Looking for an easier way, scientists began splicing human DNA into larger animals, which don't need such close monitoring. The medicinal products are extracted from the animal's blood or milk. Today pigs have been genetically engineered to produce human hemoglobin, used for blood transfusions. Genetically altered sheep produce a human protein for treating emphysema. And cows are producing lactoferrin, the protein in human breast milk that helps babies fight infections. Drug companies hope to use it against cancer and AIDS. The engineered animals are called "transgenic, because they carry transferred genes from humans. They are literally live, four-legged drug factories. Transgenic products will be available within the decade. But already some people are drawing grand philosophical conclusions from the technology. A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says the capacity to splice human genes into animals proves that humans are merely part of the animal world--nothing more. But this is nonsense. The fact that a tiny strand of human DNA can function in an animal tells us nothing about our metaphysical status. Humans are much more than DNA. The essential mark of humanity is the image of God. DNA is an important molecule, of course--governing heredity and development. But we aren't made in the image of a strand of chemicals. We're made to reflect the character of God himself. Using farm animals for pharmaceuticals may well produce the next generation of wonder drugs. But in our secular age, it could also foster a genetic reductionism that reduces human beings to a read-out of their genetic code. As Christians we need to be ready to give an interpretation of genetic technology that preserves a biblical view of human dignity. We may share genes with farm animals, but, much more important, we share the image of the God who made us.


Chuck Colson


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