Pablo Irusta: Crossing Borders, Crossing Disciplines--Teaching Translational Science to Undergraduates
How do cells in the body commit suicide? Professor Pablo Irusta says the answer could be lifesaving.
The self-destruction process – known as apoptosis – can be a positive function because it prevents cells from unfettered multiplication.
Working correctly, apoptosis keeps cells infected by micro-organisms, such as viruses, from making harmful inroads. But when apoptosis fails, damaged cells can grow uncontrollably. The process is what allows cancerous tumors to develop in the body.
“A cancer cell is a very selfish cell,” says Irusta, assistant professor in the School of Nursing & Health Studies’ Department of Human Science. “It divides even though it is in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Preventing apoptosis failure is a goal of Irusta’s current research into the molecular mechanism of what he calls, “cellular suicide.”
A Yale-trained microbiologist who grew up in Argentina, Irusta also researches cell aging and the cellular effects of viral infections such as those caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia among infants and children under 1 year of age. Irusta served as a senior author on a recent article in Nature Medicine about the virus.
The Georgetown professor works with Johns Hopkins University professor Fernando Polack, director of the INFANT Foundation. Based in Buenos Aires, the foundation is part of Johns Hopkins’ Panamerican Infant Network, which collaborates with Irusta’s lab on projects related to cellular responses to viral infections.
Irusta teaches undergraduate students at the NHS Discovery Center, a 3,000-square-foot scientific laboratory located on the GUMC campus.
During the past two summers, he brought 17 Georgetown students to Buenos Aires, where he directed a six-week, six-credit program on translational science at the INFANT Foundation.
Translational science recognizes that scientific discoveries, which often begin with basic molecular or cellular research, need to be “translated” into practical applications, such as medications or other treatments.
“Dialogue across scientific disciplines – particularly between physicians and basic researchers – is critical if we are to translate discoveries made in the laboratory setting into clinical therapies and decisions that will directly benefit patients,” Irusta explains.
He believes undergraduates need to be exposed to the concept of translational science early on.
“I love working with undergraduates,” he says. “The excitement that they show when they learn something for the first time or when they find the answers to a question we just posed a few days earlier is tremendous. Those discovery moments are very gratifying."
While in Argentina, the Georgetown groups worked closely with Polack and a team of researchers and students from other universities. They researched RSV and other illnesses in the classroom, the laboratory, and local pediatric hospitals.
Martyna Skowron (NHS’09), a human science major, says the course reinforced her plans to enter the medical field—either as a physician, public health representative or researcher.
"This trip has been one of the most influential experiences of my life,” she says.
And Andrew Rumin (NHS’10), a health care management & policy major, says that the trip expanded his knowledge of foreign health systems.
Back at Georgetown, some of Irusta’s students continue the research they began in Argentina. Plans for the 2009 internship are underway.
“Scientific partnerships across national boundaries and academic disciplines continue to be critical in addressing biomedical problems,” Irusta says. “Our continuing goal is to prepare students in the health sciences to operate effectively in international multidisciplinary research teams.”
By Bill Cessato, excerpted from the Spring 2008 issue of Health Care Horizons
NHS Professor Pablo Irusta (back in glasses) posed with students who
participated in the 2008 translational health science internship in
Buenos Aires, Argentina.