Where Science and Faith Converge

Viruses and God's Providence Revisited

By Fazale Rana - November 26, 2009

New Research Suggests More Reasons Why God Created Viruses

Thanksgiving is the time of year that most people pause to celebrate their blessings. Christians understand that many of the good things they enjoy stem from God's providence.

In Christian theology, providence refers to God's continual role in: (1) preserving His creation; (2) ensuring that everything happens; and (3) guiding the universe. The concept of divine providence also posits that when God created the world He built into nature everything humans (and other living organisms) would need. Accordingly, every good thing that people possess has been provided and preserved by God, either directly or indirectly. (Scriptural support for this last point can be found in passages like Psalm 104.)

Sometimes God works in mysterious ways and sometimes His providence can be found in unusual places. A recent study suggests that maybe even viruses are part of God's provision for humanity. This notion may seem counterintuitive, because these nasty "bugs" are responsible for so much sickness and disease. Many people view viruses as an "evil" component of nature. But viruses are turning out to be quite practical for biomedical applications. A few months ago I wrote about proof-of-principle experiments performed by scientists from Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Center that describes the use of viruses to combat antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

New work by a team of biomedical scientists from France adds further support for this idea. These researchers used the HIV-1 virus to successfully treat two boys with a rare brain disorder called adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD).

ALD is an x-linked genetic disorder that first appears in afflicted boys around six to eight years in age. This rapidly progressing disease almost always leads to death by adolescence. ALD results from a defect in the ABCD1 gene. This region of DNA encodes a protein that transports very long chain fatty acids into peroxisomes for destruction. Very long chain fatty acids take part in forming the myelin sheaths that encase axons of nerve cells. If very long chain fatty acids are not properly broken down, the maintenance of myelin sheaths is negatively impacted. As a consequence, demyelination takes place. ALD is characterized by the progressive widespread demyelination of neurons in the brain.

The French team of biomedical scientists developed and tested a clinical protocol to treat ALD by using a "disabled" HIV-1 virus to introduce a healthy ABCD1 gene into hemopoietic stem cells isolated from two seven-year-old patients suffering from ALD. After this genetic engineering step, the modified hemopoietic stem cells were introduced back into the patients. The modified cells produced healthy oligodendrocytes that halted the progression of the disease after 14 months. (For a more detailed discussion of the study go here to listen to an episode of Science News Flash that describes this work and its implications.)

It is provocative to think that researchers could use something as insidious as the HIV-1 virus to treat a horrible disease like ALD. Ironically, the same characteristics that make this virus harmful to life also turn out to be the ideal properties for gene therapy. In this way, viruses could be thought of as part of God's providence.

Does that mean God created pathogenic viruses? I suggest that the answer is yes. Pathogens control plant and animal populations and consequently play an important ecological role. What about viral pathogens that infect humans? In this case, I argue no. Rather, I propose that human viruses evolved from animal viruses, jumping hosts.

This cutting-edge work demonstrates that whether or not one sees a feature of nature as "evil" or "good" often depends on how comprehensively he or she views that particular aspect of creation. God does indeed work in mysterious ways. As researchers continue to develop new ways to use viruses, I foresee a day in which we view them as an indispensible part of our existence, part of God's provision, something that we thank Him for.

Other related resources of interest:

10 Breakthroughs of 2010 booklet

"Viruses and God's Providence" web article

"Why Did God Create Flesh-Eating Bacteria?" e-Zine article

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