The Fight against Disease: An Interview with Biochemical Engineer Katie Galloway

The Fight against Disease: An Interview with Biochemical Engineer Katie Galloway

This summer, Dr. Katie Galloway joins the RTB family as an adjunct scholar. As a ministry, we are blessed to have her fresh perspective on science apologetics, specifically the evidence for God in biological systems. Katie’s involvement in RTB stems from both her family’s support of the ministry (she attended an RTB event at the age of three) and her own desire to use science apologetics to help people understand the supporting evidence for the truth of Christianity.

For me, personally, it’s exciting to have a scholar in the office who is also my contemporary. (We occasionally swap young mommy stories.) In our talks, Katie has also impressed me with her passion for applying scientific advances to minister to the needs of people around the world. In this interview we got into a fascinating discussion about the opportunities biochemical engineering offers for alleviating disease.

During high school, Katie became attracted to the idea of solving design problems through chemistry. She went on to earn a PhD from Caltech in chemical engineering with an emphasis in biology. Today she applies her engineering mind to biological systems—namely, the cell.

“The cell is a reactor where the processes must be controlled,” Katie says, “Biochemical engineering aims to direct cellular behavior to produce useful chemicals, medicines, and cell-based therapies.”

She points to the example of antimalarial drugs. Producing these drugs the traditional way (via extraction from plants) is cost-prohibitive for developing countries—where malaria is most rampant. “But through biochemical engineering,” Katie explains, “the plant’s biosynthetic pathway was built into yeast, making production of the drug much more cost-effective.” Exciting stuff!

Katie’s faith drives her interest in exploring ways to use biochemical engineering to address issues like the antimalarial drug. Research dollars often go to fighting diseases common in wealthy, developed nations, while improving cost-effectiveness of drugs for use in poorer regions is sometimes given a lower priority.

As Katie puts it, “It’s not sexy as a scientist to make something cheaper, unless you’re working in biofuels. But my faith makes me think differently about what problems are important for us to address.”

For example, Katie would love to tackle the issue of so-called “orphan diseases.” These maladies are so rare that it’s cost-prohibitive to develop therapeutics for them, essentially leaving those suffering from these diseases with little recourse.

One such disease, known as epidermolysis bullosa, occurs when a defective gene weakens the collagen. Victims’ skin comes off on contact—leading to the name “butterfly children” for younger patients. Sufferers often die of infection or cancer. Katie explains that biochemical engineering could make treatment of this illness possible by delivering the correct gene via stem cells.

In fall of this year, Katie will begin postdoctoral research in neurobiology and regenerative medicine at the University of Southern California (USC). Her work will put her on the path toward helping people combat debilitating diseases, specifically ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Katie will be researching how to convert skin cells from ALS patients directly into motor neurons with the potential to facilitate drug screening (testing drugs for effectiveness without putting the patient through the possible side effects). In the future, this kind of research could slow the neuron and muscle degeneration caused by ALS and possibly fix damaged cells.

In the meantime, Katie will be contributing to RTB’s efforts to overcome the barriers many face in coming to trust in Christ. Watch for her articles to appear on Today’s New Reason to Believe and in our e-zine and listen for her answers to real questions on I Didn’t Know That!

Welcome aboard, Katie!

— Maureen

Resources: As a volunteer apologist, Katie has already contributed a number of articles to RTB’s website. Check them out here!