Faith in the Lab

Conversations with research scientists on matters of the spirit

Most of the research happening at Georgetown University on any given day is taking place at the Medical Center. With more than 400 scientists and 300 active clinical trials, GUMC is home to the university's largest research enterprise. How does the Jesuit, Catholic tradition impact the pursuit of biomedical research on campus? Do religious values overly limit academic freedoms that researchers would have at other secular institutions?

“I’ve had people ask me if the institution gets in the way of us doing things,” says Robert Clarke, dean for research at the Medical Center and professor of oncology at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. “For me, it doesn’t.” 

Clarke believes that people who choose to work at Georgetown accept that it may place some limitations on what they can do in their work, but that it’s not overly intrusive. For him, the benefits of the Jesuit approach far outweigh any perceived drawbacks. 

“For example, we teach embryology in medical school but it’s taught from the biological and clinical perspective. There’s no need to go beyond that to achieve the goals of the programs. But if someone wanted to come here to work on something that, say, required the creation of new cell lines from human embryos? Not gonna happen,” says Clarke matter-of-factly.

Adult stem cell research does take place at Georgetown, in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular & Cellular Biology, in addition to groundbreaking stem-like cell research in the Center for Cell Reprogramming. Clarke notes that this kind of work—reprogramming normal cells to replace damaged tissues or organs in regenerative medicine, or even growing cells from an individual’s cancer to determine what the best treatment is —speaks to the doctrine rather than challenges it. Remarkable advances in personalized medicine have taken place at Georgetown as investigators have sought innovative alternatives to embryonic stem cell research. 

So Clarke prefers the question, “How does the Jesuit environment allow you to do what you do better?” 

“That’s the piece that you don’t get at other institutions,” explains Clarke. “How does it increase the likelihood of a meaningful impact from your work?” The Jesuit ideals create an environment that supports intellectual inquiry, he says, and principles like cura personalis and “women and men for others” are not just nice slogans for the banners hanging around campus. 

“At Georgetown, people here take these ideas seriously. It shows in the care we take of our students, our faculty and staff, our patients and the research that we do towards improving human health,” Clarke says. “These values are framed in the context of the Jesuit tradition,” he adds, “But they are also entirely aligned with a humanistic view of the world. So even if you came in as an atheist or agnostic, or a person of a completely different faith, the Jesuit ideals are consistent with the core beliefs of many different human societies. And they’re not always explicit or encouraged at other institutions, but here at Georgetown they are.” 

THE MORE WE KNOW... 

While many scientists avoid an outward expression of spirituality in the workplace, if you happen to also be a Franciscan Capuchin friar, there’s not much choice in the matter. The long, brown hooded robe, tied at the waist with a white rope, offers a pretty big clue that you are part of a religious order. 

For Brother Diogo Escudero, working in Clarke’s lab this summer has been a positive experience. Originally from Brazil, he now commutes by Metro each day from his residence at Catholic University to the lab in the Basic Science building at Georgetown’s Medical Center. At first nervous about how people on campus and at work would react to his appearance in the traditional habit, so far he’s been pleasantly surprised. 

“To be honest I was a little scared, walking in dressed like this, especially working in science,” Escudero explains. “But people at Georgetown have been very friendly, asking me what I am—a priest, or a monk—and asking about things like evolution. I’ve had many conversations about faith and science. It’s been a beautiful time here.” 

He is working with Ayesha Shajahan- Haq on a cancer study looking at exosomes. “These vesicles are secreted by cells in a lot of different scenarios, in both biologically normal scenarios and in cancer,” says Escudero. “We’re looking at differences between cancer cell lines for examples of what proteins are present in these vesicles. We hope to better understand their role in resistance to therapy and in the process the cancer’s spread—the metastasis. There’s a lot of literature showing that cancer cells use this mechanism—shedding vesicles filled with proteins—to prepare the place that it wants to go. If we understand this process, we can understand cancer better.”

When Shajahan-Haq read his application for the internship, she was intrigued by Escudero’s excellent education, training, and publication record. And his status as a Capuchin friar. When he came for the interview, he was even more intriguing, she says.

“He has a calming, disarming demeanor—plus he is respectful, humble and funny. Not only is he an extremely hard worker, he is often the first to break the ice with others, and he never hesitates to poke a little fun at himself. I find Brother Diogo to be an ideal trainee. He listens, learns, questions, studies, participates, helps and enjoys while he is working in the lab,” says Shajahan-Haq.“Also, I think we all behave a little better and hold back our tongues in his presence!” she adds with a smile.

Escudero finds Georgetown a very accepting place, noting that people at the university are used to having members of religious communities working in the sciences. “Being a Jesuit school makes it easier, with scientists like Fr. Kevin FitzGerald here,” he says. 

In the lab, Escudero says he finds great joy looking closely at God’s work. “Scientists have such a beautiful call to make God’s greatness, his beauty, his wisdom known though the intricacy and the complexity of biology. It’s so beautiful how everything is connected. The more we know, the less we know— which is kind of like faith.” 

THE JESUIT AND THE CLONED SHEEP

When two Scottish scientists cloned a sheep back in 1997, news reporters called Georgetown bioethics pioneer Dr. Edmund Pellegrino for his opinion on the shocking breakthrough. He referred them to Fr. Kevin FitzGerald, S.J., who had just completed his Ph.D.s in bioethics and molecular genetics at Georgetown.

“The next morning I’m quoted on the front page of The New York Times, and I spend the following two weeks running around doing TV and radio interviews because suddenly I was an expert in cloning. That’s because nobody was an expert in cloning!” FitzGerald laughs. He quickly learned a lot of cell biology and became enmeshed in the exploding field of bioethics. 

Today at Georgetown FitzGerald is the Dr. David Lauler Chair of Catholic Health Care Ethics in the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, and an associate professor in the Department of Oncology. Pope Francis appointed him to the Pontifical Council for Culture in 2014, and in 2015 he began a consulting appointment for the Catholic Healthcare Association on cutting edge ethics matters.

With all the late 90s hype around cloning, it was nearly 20 years before science really developed the technology to do what was promised, says FitzGerald. Today, he believes, we are on another threshold with genetic engineering. To explain the challenge, he takes us on a Jesuit visualization:

Imagine a situation where the parents come in to the doctor’s office. They say “We’re pregnant for the first time! Yay!” Doctor says, “We’re going to test your developing child, at the fetal stage. And of course we don’t have to do amniocentesis or chorionic villi sampling anymore. No, no, no. We just take some of your blood, Mom, from your bloodstream because the child’s genetic material circulates in your bloodstream now and long after the baby is delivered.”

So we take that out and we test 20,000 plus genes and a lot of other regulatory areas in the entire genome of that developing child. And we’re guaranteed to find at least 10 or 12 recognizable deleterious mutations. So no child is perfect. Which imperfections do you want? And while you’re at it, what things would you like? What would you like to have us change?

Things can be changed?!

FitzGerald pauses. “We’re getting to the point where that may be possible,” he explains.

Nothing is 100% certain though, and there may be some risk. Even though we will do all this genetic stuff, your child still won’t be perfect. It still won’t come out exactly the way you had planned it. Because there’s this whole other level called epigenetics that regulates the genetics....

We are at a new frontier, says FitzGerald, and with affordable, fast whole genome sequencing, people will have a lot of information and options. And so he asks, “To what end?”

“This is why the moral landscape is fractured—we have a lot of different ends out there. A lot of different people with different ideas of what is good and bad for their developing child.”

To determine one’s worldview and where it is grounded, he suggests that faith offers answers. 

“Faith in the Catholic tradition is grounded in the acknowledgement of a relationship between ourselves and God, our creator, or whatever you call the ultimate, the infinite. In all the Abrahamic traditions, God calls us to engage on a personal level. This gives us a framework, beyond anything we can come up with on our own.”

FitzGerald sees religion and science as two essential lenses for viewing the important issues of our time. He anticipates growing questions about exploding bioethics topics such as synthetic biology, where scientists use living organisms to make products like spider silk from goat’s milk. Or the latest in neurotechnology, with new micro-implants and apps that assess and control brain function.

So how does a bioethicist sleep at night (besides counting cloned sheep)? 

“Exhaustion!” laughs FitzGerald.

“Honestly, part of me enjoys waking up during the night, with my mind racing, and putting all these ideas together.”

By Jane Varner Malhotra