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An Interview with Cancer Researcher Dr. Arvin Gouw on the Intersection of Health Research and Theology

Dr. Arvin Gouw is an instructor of medicine at Stanford and founder of Bacchus Therapeutics, developing small molecule inhibitors of cancer metabolic pathways.  Arvin received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, master’s degrees in philosophy from University of Pennsylvania, in theology from St. Mary’s Seminary & University Ecumenical Institute of Theology, and in neuroscience from UC Berkeley.


Q:  Arvin, at AI&F we’re all about multidisciplinary engagement around faith, science and technology.  You’ve woven those elements together in an extraordinary way through your study and work in medicine, research, and theology.  But before getting into those intersections, please tell us about your work now as founding CEO of Bacchus Therapeutics.  What is Bacchus seeking to develop and what brought you ultimately to this mission?

A: Bacchus Therapeutics grows out of the discoveries that we made at Stanford in the field of cancer metabolism. There I studied the cancer-causing gene MYC, which is found to be elevated in over half of all cancers. By studying how cancer cells eat, meaning how they absorb nutrients, how they metabolize nutrients, at Bacchus we’ve found ways to starve only cancer cells but not normal cells. That’s why we named the company Bacchus, the god of food and wine.


Q:   Let’s turn to how and why you interwove science and theology in your academic work.  Please tell us about why you did this and some of the key lessons you learned in the process?

A: I was raised as a Christian in a very conservative evangelical church that believed in Creationism – Seven Day Creationism, and very anti-evolutionary theory. So that was really the beginning of me trying to integrate science and theology. But my passion for this really kicked in when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley (Cal). UC Berkeley is located adjacent to the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) Berkeley, where there’s the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS). While I was at Cal, I never had the chance to complete a theology degree at the GTU because I was still pursuing my BA and MA. So when I got accepted to Hopkins, I went to look for seminaries in Baltimore.

It all comes down to fortunate timing. I was very pleased to learn about St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute of Theology.  It’s not far from Hopkins and I was able to work out a schedule without conflicts. At St. Mary’s I mainly studied theology and biblical studies, not much intersection with science, but it provided the theological foundations needed for further studies.

After I completed my MA in theology at St. Mary’s, my thesis advisor at Hopkins was recruited to Penn. This allowed me to continue my Hopkins research at Penn as staff, with staff educational benefits.  I felt that theology and science often need philosophy as a mediating language, so I completed an MPhil at Penn. I then learned about a fellowship in theology and science at Princeton Theological Seminary, so I pursued that program in my last two years at Penn. Fortunately, the distance between Philadelphia and Princeton was manageable and again the timing worked out.

What I learned from all this is that it’s very fun to study different things simultaneously. Many science graduate students get stressed out with their project because usually our project is all we think about. But pursuing other things made me realize that there are more things out there beyond the lab. This was very helpful whenever I encountered problems in my dissertation work.

Now I see that the field is so huge in terms of the applications of theology inside genetic engineering, AI and space travel. The application of theology to these fields is completely new and we need more and more experts in both fields. So that from that starting point, I just got interested in all the other topics.


Q: You said a few minutes ago that philosophy is a good mediating language between science and theology. Can you tell me a little more about that?

A: Sure. I think in terms of methodology, it’s very helpful to understand how science operates —  whether it’s just very objective, which it isn’t, or it is completely run by various institutions, which it isn’t — it’s some kind of a hybrid of the two. And then how theology acts as a discourse, whether it’s going to be completely disengaged from science, or in what sense these two domains interact. I think philosophy is the one discipline that can mediate the two in terms of language, clearing up the terminologies, figuring out what each subject would mean if truth were more effectively understood in both science and theology.  Defining those terms so that when there is a communication going on, both sides can agree.  Otherwise, they’re talking past each other. That’s why philosophy is very, very important.


Q:  Jennifer Doudna is practically a household name these days as the co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of CRSPR, a revolutionary gene editing tool.  You worked with her at Cal Berkeley before she became internationally famous.  What was that like?

A:  I worked as her graduate student instructor in biochemistry, and it was great to work with her. She cares for her students, and she’s very humble. She always asked us about how we felt about the exams and lecture materials that she presented. She’s a very nice person, and in science that’s not always a given. She did not change before and after her fame, not even after her Nobel. We knew that Jennifer was smart when she joined Cal, it’s just that we, or at least I, didn’t always understand why her work was interesting. But over time that obviously becomes very clear!


Q:  There have been many culturally contested issues around bioethics over the past 50 years including around abortion, stem cell research, so-called designer-babies and genetic enhancement, and now CRSPR, to mention only a few.  Have you involved yourself directly in bioethics discussions beyond the requirements of your research design?  How so?

A: Yes, I have, and I’m in a fortunate position that I have studied both theology and science. Bioethics issues arise not only because they’re complex ethical issues, but because it’s not trivial to understand the science, not to mention all the other stakeholders. I have given multiple talks (at AAAS, IRAS, GTU, Rotary Club, churches, high schools, online platforms, etc.) and written papers on this issue trying to bridge the discussion and raise awareness of the science basics.   The past bioethics debates, as you mentioned, have helped to frame the CRISPR discussion. Oftentimes, it’s the same bioethicists from the previous debates who will have similar arguments just modified for CRISPR.  But on the opposite side I think scientists also need to learn from the ethicists and from philosophers and policy makers about how discoveries played out in the public discourse, and be able to communicate their work to the public better.


Q:  To what degree do you use AI-powered technology in your current research?  Do you see risk-boundarying discussions in connection with that technology as you’ve seen around biology-based technologies like CRSPR?

A: AI in its various forms is always very useful in my line of work. This is another example where two different fields are at intersections, and it’s very important to understand how the AI works, and how genetics works biologically in the wet lab. I’m less concerned about AI scientists and geneticists having discussions; such discussions are not unprecedented, and they usually have mutual respect for one another.  But we must remember to include people from humanities in the discussion. The biases implicit in data from which AI learns, and the use of its applications, are all aspects which are beyond the expertise of AI and genetics researchers.


Q:  Is there a role for people of faith to engage in programs like Human-Centered AI at Stanford?  How do you think programs like these could benefit from broader faith engagement that has long been present in the bioethics debate?

A:  There’s definitely a role for people of faith to engage AI ethics. Your AI and Faith platform speaks volumes to this very point. Artificial intelligence presupposes human intelligence and human nature in general. Human nature is within the realm of humanities – philosophy, theology, anthropology, etc. Eric Stoddart and his theology of surveillance whom you interviewed in March, is another example of how theology can contribute to the discussion. But the reverse is also true – Noreen Herzfield has brought AI to reinterpret theological views of human nature as the image of God in the Christian tradition. So the dialogue goes both ways and both fields will gain a lot out of this this interaction. In the world of hyperspecialization, the time has come that both interdisciplinary scholars and generalists are needed more than ever.

Thank you, Arvin!

Dr. Arvin Gouw

is an instructor of medicine at Stanford and founder of Bacchus Therapeutics, developing small molecule inhibitors of cancer metabolic pathways.  Arvin received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, master's degrees in philosophy from University of Pennsylvania, in theology from St. Mary’s Seminary & University Ecumenical Institute of Theology, and in neuroscience from UC Berkeley.

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