Harvard Virologist Joins UM’s Fight Against HIV/AIDS and Cancer

Ronald Desrosiers, Ph.D., a virologist whose seminal discoveries at Harvard Medical School fueled scientific hopes of developing a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, has joined the Miller School’s Department of Pathology, where he will serve as Director of Research Faculty Development and continue his basic science research into viruses that cause AIDS and cancer.

“We are absolutely delighted that Ron Desrosiers has joined the faculty in the Department of Pathology,” said Richard J. Cote, M.D., Professor and Joseph R. Coulter Jr. Chair of Pathology. “He is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading virologists, and he will have an enormous impact on the HIV and viral oncology programs at the University of Miami.”

A professor of microbiology and molecular genetics who spent the past 35 years at Harvard and its New England Primate Research Center, Desrosiers discovered the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the closet known relative of HIV found in monkeys, and the monkey equivalent of the Kaposi sarcoma herpes virus. He said his interest in joining the Miller School faculty evolved from his membership on the scientific advisory board of UM’s Miami Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), which had its inaugural meeting last fall.

“I spent a day and a half at the UM CFAR, and I got back to Massachusetts so impressed with the program I put out a feeler,” Desrosiers said. “What impressed me was the breadth and scope of the AIDS research, from lab-based fundamental discoveries and research through the clinical treatment and outreach to the infected HIV community. Basic scientists and clinicians were in close contact. They respect each other; they talk to each other. They discuss both sides of the approach. That was very impressive.”

Desrosiers will share a lab with David Watkins, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Pathology, and Mario Stevenson, Ph.D., professor of medicine, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Co-Director of the Miami CFAR’s administrative core, who described Desrosiers as the ideal scientist – creative and collaborative – to have in the long struggle to develop a vaccine against the rapidly replicating and mutating AIDS virus.

“His group was among the first to demonstrate that you could vaccinate against SIV,” Stevenson said. “That gave us the hope that an HIV vaccine is not science fiction. A vaccine may be possible, but it’s probably going to come from an unexpected line of investigation, so we need scientists who are thinking outside the box and are willing to take on high-risk, high-payoff type questions. Ron has demonstrated time and time again that this is the sort of scientist he is.”

“Ron has made important contributions in the area of viral oncology, where he discovered a virus in the rhesus monkey that is a close relative of the Kaposi sarcoma herpes virus that often affects people with AIDS,” noted Watkins. “He is also developing an animal model for cervical papilloma virus infection, the precursor for cervical cancer.”

The author of nearly 300 peer-reviewed papers, Desrosiers has received numerous awards and honors over his career, including 2002’s “Most Highly Cited Scientist.” He earned his undergraduate degree from Boston University in chemistry, an interest sparked by a high school chemistry teacher in his native New Hampshire. He then pursued his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Michigan State University “to apply what I learned to living systems.”

After a post-doctoral fellowship in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, he joined the Harvard faculty, where he would remain for 35 years, focusing on the molecular mechanisms of viral pathogenesis when a strange immune deficiency virus was confirmed in humans in the early 1980s.

As he did at Harvard, Desrosiers hopes to develop a program to nurture young investigators at UM. “Once I see how things work here I hope to be able to start a transition-to-independence program that would allow the best and the brightest at University of Miami to obtain independent grant support and to achieve faculty status,” he said.

Regarding his own research toward a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, Desrosiers said, “We’ve been building on one approach that shows protection against SIV for more than 10 years, but the flame of those results continues to burn. It continues to tell scientists that, ‘Hey, this may be one way to do it; let’s figure out another way.’”

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