Memorial Lecture to Honor One Scientist’s Legacy and Another’s Accomplishments

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photo from the SPGM archive
Photo of David Derse

The late David Derse, Ph.D., pictured in 2008.

On November 19, an internationally renowned virologist will visit NCI at Frederick to deliver a lecture in the Building 549 auditorium. Beatrice Hahn, M.D., was invited by the NCI HIV Dynamics and Replication Program, which is hosting her as the speaker and recipient of the Eighth Annual David Derse Memorial Lecture and Award. Her talk, “Exploring and Exploiting the Ape Precursors of Human AIDS,” will discuss how simian immunodeficiency viruses in chimpanzees and gorillas gave rise to HIV in humans through zoonotic infection.

Since 2012, the HIV Dynamics and Replication Program has sponsored the memorial lecture and award in honor of the late David Derse, Ph.D., former head of the program’s Retrovirus Gene Expression Section at NCI at Frederick. The award recognizes outstanding scientists who study HIV or cancer-associated viral diseases.

Each year, the program partners with Derse’s widow, Hye Kyung Chung-Derse, Ph.D., and NCI to bring a distinguished lecturer to Frederick to “foster scientific discussion and the open exchange of ideas that are essential for cancer and AIDS research advancement,” says Anne Arthur, technical lab manager.

Hahn and her team discovered that HIV-1 and HIV-2 originated from humans contracting cross-species infections from African primates with simian immunodeficiency virus, and she generated the first molecular clone of HIV-1. She has also studied malaria, tracing the origins of two high-profile strains to primates. Her bibliography includes hundreds of manuscripts, and she is a member of several scientific societies and academies, including the National Academies of Science and Medicine. In 2002, Discover magazine listed her as one of The 50 Most Important Women in Science. Currently, she is a professor of Medicine and Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

The Eighth Annual David Derse Memorial Lecture and Award will be held from 1:30–3:00 p.m. on November 19. The entire NCI at Frederick community is invited to attend, but for those who can’t, the event will be aired live and archived on the NIH Videocasting and Podcasting website.

A Lasting Legacy

David Derse, Ph.D., was an accomplished and well-respected virologist with a passion for studying retroviruses, especially HIV and human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1), a pathogen implicated in rare but devastating conditions like adult T-cell lymphoma and HTLV-1 associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis. He served at NCI at Frederick for 25 years before succumbing to advanced-stage liver cancer in 2009 at age 59.

Derse and his team’s many contributions to science include the discovery of the mechanism by which HTLV-1 evades the human immune system, information that may one day aid in new treatments and cancer-prevention strategies.

Derse obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California State University Northridge and his Ph.D. in pharmacology from the State University of New York. Before joining NCI at Frederick, he held laboratory positions at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center at New Orleans.

In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Derse was well known and loved for his passion for teaching and learning; keen sense of humor; friendliness; and love for fishing, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons. His warm personality won him many friends, both at NCI at Frederick and elsewhere.

“[Dave] was remarkably self-effacing, modest, and generous. He loved talking about data—his own or those of a colleague—and freely shared his findings,” recalled Eric Freed, Ph.D., director of the HIV Dynamics and Replication Program.

“He might be surprised, and maybe a little embarrassed, by how the [program] has continued to honor his memory, but he would also be very pleased by the high caliber of speakers who have received the Derse Award and would have immensely enjoyed all of the lectures that bear his name,” Freed added.

Shawn Hill, a technician in the program, worked in Derse’s laboratory for over a decade and says that, although Derse was an accomplished scientist, he was an even better person, friend, and colleague.

“As a mentor to myself and many other students, techs, and postdocs that worked in Dave’s lab, he was always very patient, nurturing, and engaging in the way he trained and guided his people. I always felt like I worked with Dave rather than for him,” Hill said. “I could write pages of accolades about Dave and never fully capture what a fine person he was.”

Stephen Hughes, Ph.D., chief of the Retroviral Replication Laboratory, fondly remembers Derse’s friendship both inside and outside the laboratory. The pair often took fishing trips together, traveling to streams and lakes across central and western Maryland.

“In all the years I knew him, I never heard Dave say a negative word about another person or complain about anything, even when we were, quite literally, wading in ice water,” Hughes said. “He was one of the kindest and gentlest people I ever knew. His personality illuminated his life and had a profound and positive influence on all who knew him.

“In the deepest and most original sense, he was a good man.”