David Fidock's life of science

David Fidock sq.jpg

There is no surprise that Professor David Fidock has been awarded the winner of the Advance Life Sciences category.

David’s major achievement in the life sciences field has been his genetic demonstration of how the human malaria parasite acquired resistance to the first-line antimalarial drugs chloroquine and artemisinin. The importance of this finding is underscored by the fact that malaria continues to kill over 400,000 individuals each year, mostly young children in Africa, and malaria control and treatment is vitally dependent on effective drug treatment.

His discovery of pfcrt as the determinant of chloroquine resistance yielded a rapid DNA typing method that revealed the global extent of resistance and shifted the worldwide malaria treatment and control strategy away from chloroquine.

David loves his work: “It’s just something that I feel very passionate about, and it’s just great to be able to get up and work on combatting malaria every day."

Where is home for you in Australia? Tell us about your international journey.

I was born in France as my father was working for NATO at the time. We left Paris when I was seven and moved to Adelaide where my father’s family lived, and stayed there until I finished University. I then went to Sydney for three years for university – and even though I spent longer in Adelaide – I would definitely call Sydney my “emotional” home. I was there during 1986-1989 and it was a really great place – incredibly vibrant. I love the energy of Sydney – it’s inspiring.

Did you move to the US solely for job opportunities?

I always wanted to do my PhD in France, and was always curious to see how I’d feel about it when I moved back. I applied at the Pasteur Institute and the plan was to then get my PhD and move back to Australia. I arrived in France in 1989 and studied through to 1994, but while I was there, I was awarded a fellowship to do my post doctorate – and basically my only option was to do it in America. That’s when I went to California.

So how many years were you consecutively studying for?

There was four years at Adelaide University with an honours degree in genetics, and then there were five and a half years of PhD study, and then two post-doctorates. So a long time! Being at Columbia now, in some ways I’ve technically never left University.  

Was the biotech industry something you always saw yourself getting in to?

When I started school, I was very committed to classical music. There’s a fantastic high school in Adelaide, Marryatville, which has a specialized music program, and I had played the classical violin since I was seven. If you were accepted, you had to start a second instrument, which for me was piano. You did music essentially 30 hours a week on top of your regular curriculum. So it was a huge amount of study at that school. I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do at University but figured that pursuing a classical music career would be very difficult. I was also really attracted to genetics because it addresses the mechanisms of how life works, how genes are inherited and how it contributes to our being shaped by the forces of nature and nurture.

When I was looking for positions in France, my major goal was to somehow use molecular genetics in some capacity to improve human health, specifically in under-resourced nations. So it had to be something that was really targeting poorer countries. My initial plan was to work on genetically engineering crops to improve their ability to resist drought or high salt conditions. But then I met a physician at Pasteur Institute who had studied Malaria in West Africa clinically, as a scientist. He was very inspiring. I have actually never left this topic since I started my PhD. I had a slight advantage coming from Australia and working from France as I was really the only native English speaker, and as a result my lab head took me to many international meetings because they were all in English. It was a great learning curve.  

How did you have the initiative at such a young age to implement such advanced programs?

It’s just something that I felt passionate about. I run a large research lab here in New York, with 16 or 17 people, and every day presents new challenges.

What countries are the most affected by Malaria?

It’s all sub-Saharan Africa. Over 90% of Malaria mortalities are in Africa – and in 90% of that are kids under the age of five. Historically speaking, one in five children in Africa die from infectious diseases, so it’s a huge burden.

What is eradicating the disease going to look like?

I worked on vaccines for the first nine years, and then I essentially abandoned the effort because it looked to be far too difficult to get a vaccine. The biology of the parasite that causes Malaria is so complex, that essentially there’s no effective way we’ll get a protective vaccine against the blood stages of the parasite infection, at least in the foreseeable future. There’s a chance we might get a vaccine for the liver phase – the first phase of the disease, but that’s only preventative, it’s not going to cure patients with Malaria. So it’s all reliant on drugs and mosquito control. I realized that I could apply my training in genetics and molecular biology and really focus on how the malaria parasite is able to acquire resistance.

Are there other research institutes around the world that are working on this also?

Yes there are, especially in Australia where there are many great labs. Each lab has a different focus – ours is to specialise in molecular genetics and gene editing, where you can precisely modify any parasite gene you wish.

What does a typical day look like for you?

All my days are quite different – I do quite a lot of travelling for meetings and conferences, which shakes things up a bit. If I’m in New York I’m at the lab at Columbia working with my research team – a very international group – planning experiments and writing research articles. We work with a lot of other time zones also – mostly Cambodia, Singapore, Australia, France, South Africa – so it’s a constant juggle. I also teach a little bit – I give seminars to different research departments at Columbia or elsewhere in the US. My next one is at Yale for example, and this year I have given talks at Washington University, Stanford University and MIT.  I mentor a lot of PhD students and have graduated 13 so far.

How does it feel to be the winner of the Life Sciences category of the Advance Global Australian Awards?

I’m thrilled! My youngest daughter is probably the most proud. I was nominated without my knowing it (a huge thanks to my nominator!), so when I got the call that I had won, it made me incredibly proud of being an Australian overseas. New York is a really tough town, it’s a lot of work and definitely demanding. I left my family in Australia to pursue the best career I could and it’s an honour to receive this recognition.

I think Australians achieving things abroad can be inspiring for Australians back home – by showing that we can make an impact on a global level. Geographically, we are quite far away from the US, but I think it does show that Australians at any level can be competitive with the best in the world, so I think that’s an important illustration of this type of Award. We can succeed in any sector, in any setting, and be as good as anyone else.

What do you think the most important thing is for Australia to remain innovative?

I personally think that as a society we all need to embrace globalism and multiculturalism and work to provide opportunities that can help each person lead a good life. There’s a current tendency across the globe to insert cultural divides and I think that’s fundamentally the wrong approach. New York is a great example of that – by embracing cultural diversity, the city has managed to remain creative, innovative, productive and tolerant. The key to innovation is also thinking outside the box, and being willing to take on risks and be boldly ambitious, in ways that benefit each other.