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.
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.
years ago, Esquire magazine described him as a "rock star among
molecular biologists," featuring him as one of their "best and
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.
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
telephone interview, DeRisi said science was an early passion of his, starting
with school biology lab as a young teenager.
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.
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."
recently, he's been targeting malaria, a disease that kills an estimated one
million people a year, most of them children.
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.
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."
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
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
actually built this chip. And with this chip we can take essentially any human
sample, [and] figure out what viruses are in there."
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.
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.
Eisen, editor in chief of one of those journals, PLoS Biology, said
DeRisi is particularly open about his work.
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.
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
DeRisi says his work keeps him busy, but the young scientist – he's 38 – does
have outside interests, too.
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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