South Africa 2014: Vishva Dixit

Dixit Vishva Dixit returns to Africa to receive this recognition. Of course, he has been to Africa many times, but he was born in Kenya and received his medical degree from there. He might have followed in the footsteps of his parents, who were both physicians, but he was always curious and wanted to find out how things worked. He had been the best student in Pathology as well as the best student in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the best overall medical student; and his reputation was good enough for him to win a Josiah Macy Postdoctoral Fellowship Award to come to St. Louis, where he started to work on cell-matrix signaling in the immune system. However, as he mentions in a charming interview available on YouTube®[1], he seems to have had a charming form of attention deficit, as he could not help becoming curious about other problems. It was the late 1980's, and two exciting stories had started to break in the field of apoptosis. Nagata and Krammer had independently identified the Fas-Fas Ligand interaction as a trigger for cell death in the immune system, which was quickly generalized to the the tumor necrosis family, and the Horvitz group had sequenced a primary killer gene and identified it as a protease with homologs in mammals. Vishva wondered if he could connect these two, the initial activation of cell death and the final, destructive proteolysis. This curiosity led to his elucidation of the several interconnecting links that we now recognize as the sequence by which the binding of a ligand to a receptor leads to the activation of an initiator caspase and thence to the activation of the effector caspase.

In over 400 publications, Vishva and his group have continued to explore the pathways and the control of cell death, as well as the function of the pro-inflammatory caspases. Since 1997, when he moved to Genentech, he has continued these explorations, but adding a translational direction to his research. Starting as Director of Molecular Oncology, as which he oversaw the development and release of some of the first antibody-based anti-cancer drugs, he has now moved to the position of Vice President, Physiological Chemistry, where he continues his interest in many aspects of apoptosis, including ubiquitin pathways, necroptosis, and many other areas, while allowing his imagination to wander to questions such as why the proteins that control phototropism in plants are conserved in animals.

He has won many honors, including the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Award in Experimental Pathology, and he is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an Associate Member of EMBO, and a Member of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). The International Cell Death Society is pleased to recognize one of its own, who has carried the field far forward and will continue to do so.