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Joseph DeRisi Battles Malaria with Innovation and Openness


Welcome to American Profiles, VOA's weekly spotlight on notable Americans who've made a difference in how we think, live, and act. Today: a researcher who has contributed to the battle against diseases including malaria and SARS, and who is a passionate advocate for openness in science. VOA's Art Chimes introduces us to Joseph DeRisi.

For a guy who spends most of his time in a laboratory at UCSF – the University of California, San Francisco – Joe DeRisi has a pretty high profile.

A few years ago, Esquire magazine described him as a "rock star among molecular biologists," featuring him as one of their "best and brightest" honorees.

That was after he had won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Often called the "genius award." It's given to people who show "extraordinary originality" in their work, no matter what field.

And earlier this month he was named winner of another high-profile honor. The Heinz Family Foundation selected him for their annual technology award. The quarter-million dollar prize was not only for his "pioneering advancements in the laboratory," but also for what they called the "altruistic and caring nature with which he carries on his work."

In a telephone interview, DeRisi said science was an early passion of his, starting with school biology lab as a young teenager.

"I think my formative experiences were really in junior high [school], where at a typical public school we were doing little genetic experiments, very classic experiments," he recalled.

"And those experiments in genetics really fascinated me, and I began to think about DNA and genetic inheritance and how it could be manipulated. And that was just really, really interesting to me. And so I always had my eye set on becoming a biochemist or genetic engineer of some sort."

More recently, he's been targeting malaria, a disease that kills an estimated one million people a year, most of them children.

"When I came to University of California, San Francisco to work on infectious disease, I looked around to different options, and malaria was particularly interesting and fascinating to me. It's amazing that after 100 years of study of this little parasite, we've not been able to effectively control it.

"So I thought that I could bring new technology and new approaches to the study of this parasite in a way that might be able to help us, either create a new therapeutic or prevention strategy."

Malaria isn't his only interest. In 2003, when the virus that causes the respiratory disease SARS was identified, it was thanks to a DeRisi innovation known as the ViroChip.

"Surveying the way viruses have been discovered in the past, I came to the conclusion that I could use my technology that I developed as a graduate student – DNA microarray technology – to create a chip that would simultaneously screen for all viruses ever discovered, and furthermore have the built-in capability of discovering new viruses.

"We actually built this chip. And with this chip we can take essentially any human sample, [and] figure out what viruses are in there."

The ViroChip, which is something like a glass microscope slide, has 22,000 bits of DNA from known viruses, and can aid in quickly recognizing known viruses or, as in the case of SARS, help identify new ones.

Patenting the ViroChip might have made DeRisi a lot of money, but instead it's in the public domain. Likewise, he's published papers in open-access journals, where you can read them for free on the Internet.

Jonathan Eisen, editor in chief of one of those journals, PLoS Biology, said DeRisi is particularly open about his work.

"What sets Joe DeRisi apart is not just his ability to do really cool science and really good work, but his passion about making sure those discoveries and tools are available quickly and broadly to the entire world," Eisen explained.

"And if you want to accelerate the pace of, say, development of new anti-malarial drugs, which Joe DeRisi is interested in, the best way to do that is to make sure that all the great scientists around the world have access to the latest techniques and to the latest knowledge about malaria in order to do their work."

Joe DeRisi says his work keeps him busy, but the young scientist – he's 38 – does have outside interests, too.

"If I actually had spare time, which right now I don't, you know, the things I enjoy are mountain biking up in the hills, and hiking, and so on. But these days I rarely do those things. I'm really focused on my research almost 100 percent. That and my family and kids."

In addition to malaria, Joseph DeRisi is working on other challenges, ranging from a stubborn virus that kills birds to a possible link between a virus and prostate cancer.

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