Reprogramming Cells – and Souls

Prof. Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, is one of the two recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that adult somatic cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells. By introducing four genes into skin cells, he was able to reprogram them to become as immature and undifferentiated as embryonic stem cells, with the potential to re-grow into any type of tissue from the same individual.

These are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) and they represent a revolutionary model for treating disease, discovering drugs, and providing a platform for future cell/organ transplantation. Not less important, they may eliminate any need to use human embryos in research.

There are approximately 21-25,000 genes in human DNA. Yamanaka brilliantly identified those four genes that re-direct mature cells to regress to completely immature ones.

Yamanaka hypothesized that whatever genetic information regulates the initial steps of undifferentiated cells to take a specific direction may also be capable of inducing old and mature cells to go back to their initial biological phase.

This intriguing research story seems to parallel what occurs in many human beings at what we call “existential crises” – life-changing events or, for some, religious conversions.

               Shinya Yamanaka

The question is what are these “genes” whose function can start the long process of re-programming a soul? In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II suggested that the answers starts with questions of origin:  

Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.

The questions John Paul II proposed often come spontaneously when we admire unforgettable landscapes, or encounter stories of human beings challenged by unusual and difficult experiences. Or feel great joys or sorrows ourselves. The impact of these questions, however, is often merely emotional and does not last. We turn back to practical demands and responsibilities, paying the bills and providing for the family, which – it seems – leaves no time for these “impractical” pursuits, which is to say for the spiritual life.

Also, when we have these deep thoughts or experiences, our inability to answer these questions can result in a life-long sadness. When something or someone else does not fill the sudden sense of emptiness of self, it remains a kind of vertigo that is very hard to bear.

In a famous poem Night Song Of A Wandering Shepherd In Asia by Giacomo Leopardi, this happens to a shepherd who stares at the moon and the stars at night and goes deep into himself without finding rest:

Oft as I gaze at thee,
In silence resting o’er the desert plain,
Which in the distance borders on the sky,
Or following me, as I, by slow degrees,
My flocks before me drive;
And when I gaze upon the stars at night,
In thought I ask myself,
“Why all these torches bright?
What mean these depths of air,
This vast, this silent sky,
This nightly solitude? And what am I?”

The questions that we often avoid in order to remain in our comfort zone and continue in our infallible life schemes, are actually an initial step to a kind of spiritual “gene transfer.”

These questions can prepare for disrupting a whole life of achievements and self-realization. Sometimes, the re-programming occurs virtually without notice, maybe even after criticizing religion as “the opium of the people.” Something strikes into the roots of spiritual life, which comes from outside and finds a new space, where none seemed to exist.

          André Frossard

In 1935, the French convert André Frossard entered a church, only because he was annoyed waiting for a friend and hoping to find him there.  A few minutes later he was walking into a completely new direction:

I went in there as a skeptic and atheist of the extreme left, and with something more than skepticism, something more than atheism, namely, an indifference and an immersion in so much that had so little to do with God that I no longer even bothered to deny His existence. It seemed to me absolutely one of those things that had long since been relegated to the profit and loss account of man’s insecurity and ignorance. I came out a few minutes later “Catholic, apostolic, Roman,” carried, uplifted, caught and borne forward on a tidal wave of inexhaustible joy. . . .I have to concede that a conversion of this kind must, by its sheer unexpectedness, have something about it both shocking and unacceptable for contemporary minds that would much prefer the explorations of reason to any mystical thunderbolt and feel less and less inclined to bother with divine interventions in daily life.

The reprogramming process starts with an extraordinary message that, although unexpected, finds in an ancient origin a new direction and destination. For Christians, Christ’s  Cross and Resurrection is such a turning point in world history and in the priorities and goals of each person, regardless of age, education, social status. It goes even beyond philosophy or ethics, as Benedict XVI suggests: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

At the beginning of John’s Gospel we hear that the Word was made flesh. Happily, that “reprogramming experiment” worked long ago – and still does.

Damiano Rondelli, MD is professor of medicine and director of the Stem Cell Transplant Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the editor of Storia delle discipline mediche, a history of the medical profession.