A stalwart in laboratory and clinic
Internal Medicine chair discovered a protein with kidney, heart, cancer roles
Robert A. Lisak
On a spring day in New York, Gary V. Desir, M.D. ’80, now chair of Internal Medicine, and Paul B. Beeson Professor of Medicine, answered a phone call from his father back home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Desir had planned to enjoy his first vacation to the United States, while staying at his cousin’s apartment in Queens, and return in a couple of weeks. “My father said, ‘You probably should stay in the U.S. and go to college,’” Desir recalls. “So, I stayed.”
Desir’s father, a cardiologist, had trained in Canada and Chicago and wanted his children to earn their degrees from U.S. schools. So, Desir applied, and was accepted at New York University, where he would major in biology. When the time came to follow his father, paternal grandfather, and great grandfather into medicine, he considered Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and others, but chose Yale because of its system of medical education, which promotes independent learning.
As a first-year, Desir shared a cadaver with a classmate, and soon decided he wanted to share his life with her. He and the then Deborah Dyett pursued internal medicine residencies at Yale New Haven Hospital, a decision heavily influenced by Samuel O. Thier, M.D., then Yale’s chair of internal medicine, who made sure the couple had similar on-call schedules so they could enjoy days off together. “Also, at the time, I wanted to do research in renal physiology, and Yale was top-rated in this area,” Desir says. That, along with mentors such as Thomas P. Duffy, M.D., professor emeritus of medicine (hematology), persuaded the two to stay.
Desir finished a nephrology fellowship at Yale in 1987 and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 1988. At first, he dedicated himself to research, seeking to better understand ion channel function in kidneys and searching for ways to advance clinical care.
Major success came in 2005. “A renal fellow and I were caring for patients suffering from kidney disease, and he was lamenting that, in spite of our best efforts, many of our patients ended up dying of cardiovascular-related complications,” Desir says. “That was the inspiration for looking into the connection between kidney and heart disease. And that search, which took several years, led us to discovery of renalase, a flavoprotein, synthesized in the kidney and secreted in blood, that enhances various cells’ ability to survive. The renalase protein is approximately 3 billion years old, and is encoded by a single, highly conserved gene.”
Desir and his team hypothesized that renalase could be used to protect patients from kidney injury and heart attacks, and minimize cardiac cell damage. More recently, Desir and others have also found that dysregulated renalase signaling alters the immune response to tumors and can contribute to the development of certain cancers. His laboratory is developing agents that block renalase signaling as first-in-class therapeutic agents for cancer. Desir holds several renalase-related patents and is scientific founder of two biotech companies.
Over time, Desir has taken on added clinical and administrative roles. He was appointed internal medicine chair at the West Haven VA hospital in 2003. A decade later, he became interim chair of Yale’s Department of Internal Medicine, and then its chair and chief in 2016. Desir also is board chair for Yale Medicine, the school’s clinical practice, where he is working toward making electronic-health-record software less intrusive in physican-patient interactions. In addition, he co-founded the Minority Organization for Retention and Expansion (MORE), with the goal of recruiting—and keeping—more minority faculty and students.
He also has a dual teaching appointment with the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he co-led a graduate course called “Sustainable Development in a Post-Disaster Context,” in collaboration with the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti, and continues to host visiting Haitian doctors and nurses in an exchange program.
What at first was going to be a temporary stay for Desir at Yale has now turned into four decades, and he says he has never questioned his original decision to stay. He and Deborah Dyett Desir, M.D. ’80, a rheumatologist in private practice, have raised four children during 38 years of marriage. And, within the medical school, he is thankful “to have found collaborators and people at Yale willing to help even though they were not benefiting from what they were helping me with. Even when I was a junior faculty member researching ion channels, I had people willing to help me.” Now, as a senior leader, and by personal example, it is that kind medical school he is dedicated to maintaining.