Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

2008

Joseph DeRisi

Joseph DeRisi receives the Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment for his extraordinary breakthroughs in detecting both new and existing viruses.

An innovative and selfless scientist, Dr. Joseph DeRisi's breakthrough creation of a viral detection platform for malaria and other infectious diseases has helped advance biomedicine's ability to detect both existing and new viruses. As a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco, where he also holds the post of Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, he is one of the world's foremost researchers in the application of molecular genomics to the study of infectious disease.

Dr. DeRisi stands at the intersection of the disciplines driving the life sciences - genomics, bioinformatics, virology, materials science and computer engineering. Together with his longtime collaborator, Dr. Don Ganem, he pioneered the development and use of the ViroChip, a band-aid-sized glass wafer that contains a microarray of 22,000 DNA sequences from more than 1,300 viral families. This "diagnostics on a chip" enables scientists to not only quickly and accurately identify existing viruses, but also to detect new viruses that could emerge as pandemic threats. In 2003, the ViroChip identified the SARS virus within 24 hours of receiving the sample from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Befitting his commitment to open access publishing within the scientific arena, Dr. DeRisi has not pursued a patent for the ViroChip, allowing researchers around the world to use the invention for free.

Notwithstanding his work in virus detection, Dr. DeRisi's primary focus has been on finding a cure for malaria, a disease that infects up to 500 million people annually, killing between 700,000 and 2.7 million, mostly children. He and his team developed a malaria-specific DNA chip, similar to the ViroChip that enabled them to characterize the parasite's distinctive 48-hour life cycle, a breakthrough that could pave the way for potential drug and vaccine therapy.

As part of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, a cooperative effort among three campuses of the University of California and private industry, Dr. DeRisi's laboratory is working to apply the quantitative sciences (mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering) to biosciences toward improving human health. He also has taken on a number of other challenges, from investigating a cure for the common cold to an analysis of the disappearance of a half-million honeybee colonies in the United States, a situation that could have a viral culprit at its roots.

Joseph DeRisi has made breakthrough discoveries in the laboratory that have provided clarity and insight into the detection of some of the world's most threatening viruses as well as distinguished himself as a generous and tireless advocate for the free and open sharing of scientific research. With a brilliant mind and expansive heart, he has ennobled the field of science.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.

Speech

10/21/2008 - Acceptance Speech

Many, many, many thanks are in order especially to Teresa Heinz and the Heinz Family Foundation. This is a tremendous honor for me. As a molecular biologist, as any current biologist, we stand on the shoulders of giants and I have those giants that came before me to thank, as well.  But I also must thank my family for their unwavering support: my wife Suzanne, my parents, Bill and Ruth, and my sister, Maria, who could be with me here right now. And as a scientist, we rely on crucial mentorship. And I've received amazing mentorship throughout my career, without which I would not be here by dozens of outstanding people beginning with public school actually in Sacramento, California, extending through UC, Santa Cruz where I went to undergraduate and Patrick Brown, my mentor at Stanford University. Which really illuminated, he illuminated for me completely new approaches to biomedical research and just opened my mind to how things could be done. And now I'm at the fantastic research environment-UC, San Francisco which is nurturing this new effort to pursue global health as an initiative and priority.

I also need to thank my lab because, although I do still get into the lab now and then, it's really my lab that does all the work that you see today. And my close collaborator, Don Ganem and the other people at UCSF that help me. And the people who make the work possible Herb: and Marion Sandler, the Strategic Program for Asthma Research, the Packard Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

And so, I really don't have that time to say much else, other than to remind you that we actually live in a very unusual period where the political climate has been especially hostile and damaging to science in a way that it has never been before. From stem cells to evolution to global warming; from a strangled NIH to for-profit entities that seek to stratify and ultimately restrict what science you as the public actually have access to read. We stand now, literally to lose a completely whole generation of scientists, and with them, I remind you, the next biomedical achievements that will save lives here and in every country around the world.

This needs to change! Thank you very much.

Joseph DeRisi