Dr. Joseph DeRisi - New Initiatives in Malaria
2002 - "You don't just work on malaria; you have a relationship with malaria," says Dr. Joeseph DeRisi, who is working to identify the genes essential to the survival of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the deadliest form of malaria and infects 300 to 500 million people each year.
Though the disease was largely wiped out in the U.S. and Europe in the 1950s, it remains a profound health problem in nearly 100 countries, affecting 40% of the world's population and causing roughly 2.7 million deaths annually, the majority of them children. It is estimated that somewhere in the world, a child dies of malaria every 20 seconds. The socioeconomic impact of the disease in developing countries is incalculable.
Plasmodium falciparum can be a demanding mistress: Dr. DeRisi spends his days, evenings, and weekends in the lab, using his own blood to grow the malaria, a half liter at a time. "We have a country-wide shortage of blood donors, so it's more ethical for me to donate my own blood," he says. "Using the same blood also allows us to better control the parameters.
"We're taking what we learned from the genomics on model organisms like yeast and are applying that knowledge to a deadly pathogen," Dr. DeRisi adds, noting that he first became interested in malaria as a graduate student at Stanford while working with Dr. Pradip Rathod, who was already invested in the field of malaria research. Dr. DeRisi believes that applying new technology, such as DNA microarray, to his research will make it possible to eventually develop drugs to successfully combat Plasmodium falciparum. His relationship with malaria is no passing fancy. "It's my long-term, permanent focus," Dr. DeRisi says.
Last year, Dr. DeRisi won a $50,000 JP Morgan Chase Health Award from the Tech Museum of Innovation. Nevertheless, he says his biggest success thus far has been landing an assistant faculty position and his own lab with 13 people. "It's an ideal lab," he says. "A high energy, fast-paced work environment with people always there doing things that matter." Dr. DeRisi believes in freely sharing information on DNA microarray technology and makes it available on the Web. "As a scientist, I believe you don't do research for profit," DeRisi says, adding, "I don't respect those who are in science solely for the money; the goal should be helping people." He says the most influential person in his life has been Dr. Patrick O. Brown, an HHMI professor and his graduate thesis advisor. "He was a mentor and role model who embodies all the ideals I'm talking about," Dr. DeRisi says.
With whatever free time he manages to carve out of his demanding schedule, Dr. DeRisi says he enjoys mountain biking with his wife, a Web designer who also puts in long hours on the job. The two have a tandem bike they take to the Marin headlands. As for the last book he's read, Dr. DeRisi says it's Who Goes First, a non-fiction account of scientists who experiment on themselves.