BioWorld International Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA - As the world's largest biotech gathering got under way Monday, the ethics of the 18,000 participants came under the scrutiny of a panel of religious leaders who voiced concerns that the industry is overselling the benefits of biotechnology with no reference to the associated risks.

"There are ethical questions implicit in this industry, as the demonstrations outside so noisily remind us," said the Rev. Eileen Lindner of the National Council of Churches in a session on balancing the risks and benefits of biotechnology.

Simon Best, chair of the Bioethics Committee of BIO, agreed there is a gulf in understanding that can make dialogue between the industry and religious leaders difficult. "The industry has too often gotten carried away by excitement about our science and needing to attract investment," he said. "We portrayed what we did as revolutionary, not evolutionary."

Boyd Clarke said that as president and CEO of Neose Technologies Inc. in Horsham, Pa., and an evangelical Christian, he is more aware than most of that gulf. "I am struck by how these two camps cannot talk to each other," he said. The few colleagues with whom he has discussed his religious affiliations are inclined to ask questions along the lines of, "What kind of folk dancing do you do?"

But, said Clarke, "On the other hand, I have listened to more than 2,000 sermons in my time, and the number of times I have heard a cogent message on science, or economics, or work even, can be counted on one hand."

John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said that contrary to the perceptions of many there is an assumption on the part of the Catholic Church that the biotechnology industry is committed to doing what is good. "There is a tremendous enthusiasm that biotech will solve health issues," he said.

But the fear is that many advances may be achieved at the expense of those who are weak and vulnerable. "Regrettably, humanity has a long history of using the weak for the advantage of others," Haas said. "The temptation is there to apply a utilitarian calculus to the value of one human over another."

There is "an incredible power for good" in biotechnology, agreed Rabbi David Teutsch, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Even so, the science is seen as "scary."

"The scariest part of it is that regulations cannot move fast enough to keep up with research," Teutsch said. Issues such as genetic engineering and cloning need a level of ethical consideration and legal compliance that so far is not there.

"Employers need to do training in ethics from the top down; they need to press for greater regulation; they need to think about revealing information without compromising commercial interests," Teutsch said.

Rapid advances in research, allied to lack of understanding of the science by those outside the field, mean that government regulation is more and more dependent on input from people in the industry. "The question becomes who is the keeper and who is in the zoo," Teutsch said.

"The kinds of precaution we would like to take are impossible because the complexity of interaction between industry and government is greater than in any other are area."

Lindner said the endemic problem of whether any scientific expert can be disinterested enough to responsibly give advice on regulation is aggravated in the case of stem cell research.

But Best argued that it was important to look beyond the controversy stem cell research has engendered in the U.S. In the UK, 20 years of debate on fertility treatments has worked through to make a sensible policy on embryonic stem cells. Similarly, India, China, South Korea and other countries that are taking a lead on stem cells are mindful of the need to develop to globally acceptable ethical standards.

He added, "Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, I sense more humility in our community. There is a renewed sense of awe in the face of nature, which is a far better starting point for treating disease."