Health Care, Science and Ethics

Health Care, Science and Ethics

by Rick Davis, BA’88

An internationally renowned lecturer, researcher and educator in bioethics and medical genomics — and one-time Bluejay — is the new John A. Creighton Professor

Before he was investigating a novel treatment for breast cancer, by combining Western medicine with ancient South Korean herbal remedies, or consulting the Vatican on complex issues related to bioethics, the Rev. Kevin FitzGerald, SJ, PhD, PhD, was pioneering in a different, less scientific field. He was the starting goalkeeper for the inaugural Creighton men’s soccer team.

Fr. FitzGerald, renowned for his work in bioethics and medical genomics, joined Creighton on Aug. 1 as the new John A. Creighton University Professor — a distinguished endowed faculty chair previously held by the late Robert Heaney, BS’47, MD’51, a world-renowned researcher in the field of bone biology and vitamin D.  

In 1979, after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell University and entering the Society of Jesus, Fr. FitzGerald came to Creighton for humanities studies as part of his Jesuit formation.

That same year, men’s soccer became an officially sanctioned sport at the University.  

Having played soccer in high school, the then 24-year-old Jesuit laced up his cleats, tried out and made the roster.

“It was a lot of fun,” FitzGerald says of being part of that first team. He recorded six shutouts and had a 1.54 goals-against average as the Bluejays finished the season 12-5-1.

But a life of science and the Jesuits called.

He left after that year to pursue graduate studies in philosophy and human genetics at Saint Louis University. He later earned two PhDs, in molecular biology and in bioethics, from Georgetown University, and joined the faculty there.

For 17 years, he served as the Dr. David P. Lauler Chair in Catholic Health Care Ethics at Georgetown and an associate professor in the Department of Oncology at the university’s medical center.

He is excited to be back at Creighton as the John A. Creighton Professor and an associate professor in the School of Medicine, Department of Medical Education.

“I enjoyed my time here a great deal, and I’ve always been interested in Creighton,” says Fr. FitzGerald, who served on the University’s Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2005.

With expanding health care partnerships in Phoenix, Creighton is becoming the largest Catholic health professions educator in the country, and Fr. FitzGerald will serve as a vital resource to integrate ethics across this spectrum.

The second of seven children born to Joseph and Mary FitzGerald, Fr. FitzGerald says he’s always been a “science geek.” In junior high, he told his teachers he wanted to be a nuclear physicist. In high school, his interest turned to the exciting, new field of genetics.

“They were just starting to work on this idea of genetic engineering,” Fr. FitzGerald says.

His freshman year at Cornell, in 1973, the first experiment on recombinant-DNA cloning was performed. The year after he graduated, in 1978, the first “test-tube baby” was born through in vitro fertilization.

But Fr. FitzGerald’s life would take a different turn. His senior year at Cornell, he became disillusioned after some graduate students were not credited on a research paper for their work.

“But back then, that was considered OK,” Fr. FitzGerald says. “That really bothered me a great deal. It really threw me.

“Both of my parents went to Fordham University. We heard about Jesuits growing up all the time. One night, I realized, ‘Wait a minute, Jesuits can do science. And I’ll bet they don’t do that.’”

His sister, a graduate of Marquette University, put him in touch with the Rev. John Naus, SJ, who was a philosophy professor at Marquette at that time.

“He suggested that I spend that first summer after college teaching at a program at Marquette High School,” Fr. FitzGerald says. “I taught inner-city, eighth-grade students math and science.

“I lived at the Jesuit community at Marquette High. That sort of made everything concrete.”

Fr. FitzGerald entered the Jesuits in 1977 at the novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota. Classmates included former Creighton president the Rev. Timothy Lannon, SJ, BS’73, and the Rev. James Clifton, SJ, associate dean for mission in the School of Medicine. Fr. FitzGerald was ordained a priest in 1988.

He says he is often asked how he squares his roles as a priest and a scientist.

“There is only one reality,” Fr. FitzGerald explains. “So why would I only use one particular perspective to investigate that reality, to understand that reality? Why not use as many as possible? The greater variety of perspectives you can use, the richer your understanding. To me, it’s always been a natural way to look at it.”

Fr. FitzGerald has traveled the world and been featured in the media, speaking on human genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research, personalized medicine and ethical issues in biomedical research and medical genomics. He shares his expertise on two Vatican councils — the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Council for Culture.

One of Fr. FitzGerald’s current research projects — being conducted in partnership with the South Korean government and Daegu Catholic University Medical Center — involves integrating Western medicine with traditional Korean medicine.

“We’re looking at how to integrate cutting-edge treatments for breast cancer with some traditional Korean herbal medicines that could significantly improve our Western treatments,” Fr. FitzGerald explains.

He and his colleagues have found in rat models that combining the breast-cancer drug tamoxifen with a Korean herbal treatment known as JEKHT, made from the herbs of 12 different plants, seems to enhance the effectiveness of tamoxifen and reduce its side effects.

“It’s very exciting,” Fr. FitzGerald says. “It’s an amazing project.”

Rapid scientific advancements are unleashing not only exciting new opportunities, but complex questions, as we manipulate the human genome, about what it means to be human and what, ultimately, is best for society.

“I’ve gotten pulled into global health, comprehensive and integrative medicine, all these ways in which these technologies are supposed to ‘benefit’ us somehow,” Fr. FitzGerald says. “Well, let’s make sure that happens.

“Everybody always says it’s going to benefit us. My question always is, ‘Who is the us?’”