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Health and scientific research. Mons. Trafny (Pcc): “helping those who suffer is a universal call”

The Church is attentive and open to the progress of scientific research and biotechnology. We need bridges, not walls, said the scientific expert of the Pontifical Council for Culture upon the conclusion of the Fourth International Conference on regenerative medicine. Need for a global commitment to alleviate suffering, which must include a reflection on ethics

“An open interdisciplinary approach that engages multiple experts and institutions, can lead to a reciprocal exchange of knowledge” coupled by “concrete actions on behalf of those who suffer”, with the involvement of various communities, was called for by Pope Francis on April 28 during an audience with participants in the 4th International Conference Unite to Cure A Global Health Care Initiative created by the Pontifical Council for Culture (PCC) in cooperation with the Cura Foundation, STOQ and Stem for Life Foundation, held in the Vatican, April 26-28. Slogan and mission of the initiative, attended by scientists and physicians, patients, families, ethicists and leaders of faith, government officials and philanthropists, is

Prevent, Repair, Cure and Prepare for the Future!

In the face of human suffering the Pope highlighted the need for synergies between individuals and institutions, without prejudice. The Holy Father equally underlined the importance of the ethical responsibility of science for the good of humanity. These themes were at the centre of the three-day meeting. Prior to the audience we asked Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, head of the Science and Faith Department of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, to draw a balance of this year’s Conference.

What connects the Pontifical Council for Culture to the Cura Foundation?

We have been cooperating with Dr. Robin Smith, president of Cura Foundation, for the past eight years in the joint effort to improve access to health care, increase investment in research and innovation, encourage multi-disciplinary cooperation and help the growth of healthy communities. Our goal is to focus on the latest scientific advancements whilst acknowledging and reflecting on the needs of patients at global level. One of the most important and encouraging aspects is the fact of having succeeded, in a relatively short amount of time, in bringing together the representatives of various communities to dialogue and share know-how and resources designed to improve human health.

Why did you decide to bring together representatives of different cultures, societies and religions?

We ascribe great significance to open dialogue and knowledge-sharing between scholars and leaders across all scientific disciplines, cultures and religions. Today it is not enough to have a local impact, there is need for a global outlook. Suffering is a universal phenomenon and in this sense helping those who suffer is a universal human call. This all-round debate also shows that we are able to overcome prejudices and barriers and that we are prepared to meet the challenge of today’s self-referential world.

Yet the Church is largely viewed as being somewhat marked by obscurantism, and, under certain aspects, opposed to scientific progress.

Indeed, prejudice and stereotyped understandings of Church involvement and role in the dialogue with science linger on. But scientists are increasingly open to identifying points of intersection between human and natural sciences. The scientific community is ever more aware of the need to extend beyond a mere technical approach to include ethical, cultural and anthropological questions. We have been fostering this dialogue for years: it forms part of our innermost mission.

The Conference delved into specific themes such as Cell therapy, CRISPR, and gene editing: prospects and risks.

The Church attentively follows the latest developments in the area of biotechnology. CRISPR – (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, ed.s note) is the targeted correction of germline mutations. It’s probably one of the most controversial technologies because it raises new questions. Gene editing technique is not new, in fact it was discovered years ago, but until recently it required huge financial resources and owing to its complexities it could be performed only in sophisticated labs. Conversely, CRISPR technology is easier and cheaper, and it is bound to become accessible across research centres. It’s a very powerful tool for editing genomes, notably human genomes. However, it ought to be “conceived” and “considered” also as a potentially risky tool, but we focus on the benefits of a technology that could treat countless diseases caused by genetic disorders.

Thus openness and caution…

Cardinal Parolin exhorted us to build bridges and continue the dialogue between science, faith and culture. We intend to “accompany” those who develop these technology that are bound to raise significant ethical and anthropological questions, without erecting new barriers. We must ask ourselves how far we can go, averting the risk of setting our internal biological structure off-balance, of creating a new type of human being, perhaps with enhanced human traits and genetically designed. But this must be done now, while this technique is still being developed and refined, and not when everything will already have been established.

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