May 24, 2009

"The beginning of existence is one and the same for body and soul." ~Saint Gregory of Nyssa

Today was the first day of the summer session of teaching Anatomy and Physiology! My part time teaching experiences over the past academic year have shown me the career path on which I belong. Any one know of a college professor position opening up in about a year? :) The last lecture I gave for this past spring semester was on Human Development, probably my most favorite topic in biology. I had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm with my students by explaining this complex and, actually, quite holy topic. Not surprisingly, the few faces of positive amazement were balanced by the few students who uncharacteristically walked out before the lecture ended.... In earlier posts, I wrote much about marriage and how it is a path toward holiness. Included in the marriage sacrament of our Church are prayers for the granting of children to the newly-married couple. My friend and I counted the exact number of prayers during a wedding service last summer, and to be exact, in it there are 15 prayers for the couple to be granted children! Here, I'd like to write about some basic biology about how a new person comes into being. It appears that many of us are not acutely aware of the beautifully precise biology involved at the initiation of and during our own development in our mother's womb. Perhaps this may aid us in seeing the sanctity of human life more concretely and to witness to the truth within our present society that is seemingly blind to the image of God that the developing child bears at conception and throughout his or her development. In Saint John Chrysostom's homily, "On Christian Marriage", he speaks about St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians 5:28-33: "...the one flesh is, father, and mother, and the child from the substance of the two co-mingled. For indeed by the co-mingling of their seeds is the child produced, so that the three are one flesh." Biologically speaking, we can assign to the word "seed" here as either egg or sperm, or more specifically, the nucleus (this is the cellular structure that houses DNA) of either of these gametes. According to medical classification, conception begins after fertilization, when the DNA from the sperm combines (or co-mingles) with the DNA of the egg. The reason for this is that the result of this combination of maternal and paternal genetic material (each is composed of 23 chromosomes) is a brand new, and let me emphasize, UNIQUE and COMPLETE human genome (now containing the complete chromosome count of 46). At this point, there is no egg or sperm present, but a zygote (Gr. ζυγοτός, something yoked). The zygote is living and functional and will go on to become an embryo (Gr. έμβριο, to become fuller) and eventually a fetus (Lat., offspring). All of these words represent different developmental stages of human development. DNA is the genetic material which encodes all the characteristics of a person. As soon as the new zygote is formed, the next step is to replicate the new genome and to begin cell division. The picture above shows a newly-formed zygote with the two pro-nuclei from the gametes (egg or sperm) of each parent fusing. Please note that this occurs within the first day after fertilization has occurred through the physical union of two persons. Yes, it happens fast. Quoting the textbook I use for my course, Human Anatomy and Physiology (Marieb and Hoehn, 7th ed. 2007): "By providing the information for protein synthesis, DNA determines what type of organism you will be--frog, human, oak tree--and directs your growth and development." I love to laugh at some of these science textbook one-liners that ironically state the truth and reduce human dignity to the equivalent of amphibians and trees. This quote represents the scientific community's knowledge that DNA is responsible for determining human development, indicating that DNA is of great significance. Another couple of quotes are also particularly truthful regarding the cell theory: "...the cell is the smallest living unit." "..when you define cell properties, you are in fact defining the properties of life." These quotes indicate that individual cells are living entities. They contain DNA which directs their development and function. When we concentrate on the cells within a developing embryo, we see that those particular cells are no exception to the same cell theory. What makes the embryonic cells even more unique is that they each contain a completely NEW genome. Thus, we have in the embryo cells which are the smallest living units and they contain novel and unique genetic information which directs their development into a new human person. These observations point us to the direction that even scientists believe that life begins at conception--since at conception, a new genome is created and replicated as new embryonic cells divide and multiply to eventually form all the rudimentary structures of the human body by the 8th week after fertilization. In the next few posts, I hope to share more of my thoughts that intertwine biology and Christian faith in the context of human development. This will include topics on bioethics, particularly reproductive cloning and abortion. Your feedback is greatly welcome!

May 11, 2009

Poly-phenols and Not-So-Poly Faith

I recently learned that polyphenols are organic compounds found in wine, specifically red wine and have been shown to have therapeutic properties in human beings.

Father Anthony Perkins recently told me of a concern among some of the faithful about the potential transmission of diseases (especially the recent threat of swine (H1N1) flu) through sharing the Chalice and spoon when Holy Communion is administered. Such a concern has risen before and the answer simply is this: the Body and Blood of Christ Itself, or any of the objects that contact It are NOT vehicles of corruption and sickness.

However, as weak human beings who are very Thomas-like, we must see and touch in order to believe. And, as a scientist, I understand this viewpoint—we need DATA! This has been my dilemma throughout all of graduate school and during my post-doctoral research experience: the meaning of life is DATA! That was my ticket to graduation!

Therefore, in an effort to make good use of the skills I’ve been given, I can present some scientific evidence for the anti-microbial properties of the physical elements of the Holy Gifts, particularly, the wine. Please note here that I say “Holy Gifts”, referring to the wine and bread, BEFORE they are consecrated to become the precious Blood and Body of our Lord.

It is not the alcohol, but the polyphenols, organic compounds in wine, that exhibit several different properties to protect human health—they are good for the heart (GM Halpern Immunopharmacology 2008), they are anti-carcinogenic (M Jang et al, Science 1997), and also, they exhibit anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties (P Cos et al, Current Med Chem 2004).

There is one polyphenol (among several others) that is found specifically in red wine and it is supported to stop viral replication, especially of the influenza virus. This polyphenol is called Resveratrol, let’s nickname it RV because it's too hard to pronounce. :) A group from Italy determined the precise mechanism in cells by which RV inhibits influenza infection. Another group found a strong correlation between consumption of red wine and decreased incidence of the common cold (caused by rhinoviruses). In summary, based on some of the studies presented here as well as countless others I’ve found by doing a PubMed search (online database of medical and scientific journals you can access at any hospital/med school library), it is highly likely that any object that comes into contact with red wine, be it a person’s mouth or a spoon or a chalice, the polyphenols in it will kill any harmful microbes that are present.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste (pun definitely intended) of what it’s like to do research and perhaps have gotten thoroughly bored with reading the links above, let me give you another source that has undergone some major “peer-review” in around the year 325. The title of this source is The Bible. The author is the Holy Spirit. :)

According to Saint Paul in his First letter to the Corinthians 11:30, many of the people who received Communion in an unworthy manner would become weak, sick, or even would die. As we heard in this past Sunday’s Gospel, when Jesus healed the paralytic, He said "See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you." (John 5:14). We see a strong agreement between Jesus and St. Paul on how sin and illness are correlated. It is not the Body and Blood of Christ which is a vehicle for illness, but our own human tendencies to fall into sin. The H1N1 virus and many other incurable viral diseases (HIV, the flu, herpes, cold sores, etc) are in existence because of the fall of humanity and our insistence to remain fallen in sin.

It is utter nonsense to worry about transmission of germs through common use of sacred vessels that have held and touched “the divine, holy, pure, immortal, heavenly, life giving, and awesome Mysteries of Christ, let us worthily give thanks to the Lord. (from prayers in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). Further, Saint John in his Gospel quotes Jesus saying “whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal LIFE…” (John 5:54).

Why would something that is LIFE-giving be the carrier of something that causes disease and death? Sadly, this concern is a result of our lack of faith. It is even more sad to look to human science to rely on an answer to ease our fears. I enjoy studying and teaching science, simply because it continuously glorifies God in the examination of His beautiful and wonderful creation. But, it is not the only way of knowing the truth, faith is needed. Saint John Chrysostom expresses this well (as he always does):

"Where faith exists, there is no need of question. Where there is no room for curiosity, questions are superfluous. Questioning is the subversion of faith. For he that seeks, has not yet found. He who questions cannot believe. Therefore, it is [St. Paul's] advice that we should not be occupied with questions; since, if we question, it is not faith. For faith sets reasoning at rest. ..."

Of course, it is always good to search the Scriptures, to honor science, and to ask questions to help us on our journey. But let us work on strengthening our faith and ask our Lord to give us the courage to not fear sickness and death, because He has trampled upon it.

Christ is Risen!

[Editor's Note: Please also see these links to writings by two very beloved, knowledgeable, and holy fathers of our time in Greece and America, respectively:]

May 5, 2009

Christ is Our Bridegroom, Part 2

As in typical Orthodox fashion, whenever we are challenged with both difficulties and joys in life, we look to the Saints, those who are the friends of God as our examples and as our interecessors. These men and women were human beings, like us, who found themselves in circumstances similar to our own, and who allowed Christ to work in them in the most concrete manner. They surrendered their lives to Him out of their love for each other and for Him. As a result, they were perfected and glorified by Him, achieving full union with Him. This is the calling for each and every one of us!
On May 3, we celebrated the feast day of two married saints, Maura and Timothy. The poem below captures what they might have said while they were crucified, facing each other, during their martyrdom. I highlighted some parts to emphasize the sacrificial love (agape, αγάπη) in their relationship, which is centered on Christ. See how they speak to each other, see how the roles of husband and wife as God intended are perfectly upheld by these saints.  From the Prologue of Ochrid, by St. Nikolai Velimirovich,
in the Hymn of Praise for the Feast Day of these married saints, May 3:

Timothy and Maura, crucified and pale, Through the Lord Christ, looked at one another, 
And by the spirit see each other better than with the eyes, By pain exalted, above all things. 
And Timothy speaks: Maura, my sister, You are of a female nature, and your pain is greater! 
By prayer be encouraged, do not despair sister, All of your thoughts, affix to Christ. 
Maura replied: Brother, Timothy, The Spirit of God I feel, 
in my soul it waves He keeps me strong, and helpless, He strengthens me, And the Sweet Jesus, my pains alleviates, But, about you, my glorious pride, I am concerned, 
What kind of pains, with yours can be similar? 
But just a little while, a little while, my sweet brother, From the thorns of sufferings, then the roses will blossom, To the entire heavenly host, the darling you will be, 
Only endure, endure without sound and sobbing Let us be alert brother, let us not fall asleep, 
Perhaps the Lord might come, that we not be ashamed.  Behold, the entire heavens opened, 
I see Unseen treasures for us prepared. 
Then Timothy to Maura: O sister, wonderful, Bride of Christ, glorious martyr, 
For His glorious mercy, let us glorify God, That such an honorable death, He permitted upon us. O glory to You O Savior, Who for us suffered; Our spirit, we now commend into Your hands.

Jesus Christ was the center of their marriage. While they were experiencing their martyrdom by being crucified, they looked at each other "through the Lord Christ" and "by the spirit." St. Nikolai captures a true example of how two spouses united in Christ should view one another, how they should behave toward one another--in a Christ-like manner, even in the most frustrating and darkest moments of life. Timothy is a spiritual leader by telling his wife to be encouraged "by prayer." By willingly enduring the challenging, painful, and sometimes tragic situations in life together, married persons in Christ know that they will be exalted. They know this because they allow Christ to work in them by committing their life to Him, seen by their common and daily prayer, as well as their constant labor for their salvation together.

Throughout this poem, you will also notice words of encouragement between Maura and Timothy during their suffering. Language such as "all of your thoughts, affix to Christ," indicates this. Notice also the complete entrusting of themselves to Christ, the emptying of themselves, and their deep concern and love for one another during their pain. Maura calls Timothy her "glorious pride," a term of great affection and selflessness. This is reminicsent of a similar phrase we hear from St. Seraphim of Sarov, who would call everyone he sees "my joy." What a great opportunity marriage gives one to practice dying to one's self and loving their neighbor (i.e. their spouse), at every moment of every day! Many of the Athonite elders would have a most apt saying in Greek: "do you see your brother? then you've seen the Lord your God (είδες τόν αδελφόν σου; είδες Κύριον τον Θεόν σου)."

Also, in this poem, Maura and Timothy continually refer to each other as 'brother' or 'sister'. This speaks to their unbreakable union in Christ and especially to their chastity and purity within their marriage. They were married for only 20 days, and one would suppose that as normal human beings, they officially entered conjugal union in the body. But that alone is not enough in marriage--as you see, their souls were also united, they became one body AND one soul in Christ. In her encouraging words, Maura says, "let US be alert" in preparation for the Lord's coming, a reference to the two of them being sort of a 'bridal unit', together awaiting in vigilance for their eternal Bridegroom to come. Again, this shows the purpose of Christian marriage--for the two persons to become one, and as one, to enter into union with Christ. Timothy then continues to praise her by calling her 'wonderful' and 'Bride of Christ', and also refers to their union by commending 'OUR spirit' into the hands of Christ. These elements of praise for one another and references to their union reflect how necessary it is for the spouses to continually cultivate their love (agape), to continually sacrifice themselves for the other, and to work together toward their salvation together.

This interpretation of St. Nikolai's poem is simply my own. I do not claim to be a theologian on these matters at all, I simply want to share my thoughts on it. I have been greatly moved and influenced by the writings of St. John Chrysostom about the sacrament of marriage, the numerous homilies, writings, and counsels of many holy priests and bishops alive today, as well as some real examples of Orthodox couples I know personally. :) See HERE for an example.

Please forgive me for my errors, and please share your comments on the life of these inspiring saints.
Next post, I plan to write about the fruit of marital love--children. And, to connect that to biology and to bioethics....yes, I finally will bring some science into the revolution! :)