Many scientists only dream of being on the cutting edge of a new field in biology, but for more than 15 years, Vojo Deretic, PhD, has been at the forefront of research focused on autophagy – a cellular process central to many biological systems that may hold the key to new cures.
The journey has been full of professional risks, fascination and legacy for Deretic, professor and chair in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology.
Born in Croatia, Deretic attended the University of Belgrade and the University of Paris for his bachelor’s and graduate degrees. He eventually traveled to the University of Illinois at Chicago for post-doctoral work and received faculty appointments at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Michigan.
He remembers visiting New Mexico while living in Texas – even dreaming of owning a home in Santa Fe, despite having little income at the time.
“We loved New Mexico,” Deretic says, “so there was always a big attraction.” His move to UNM led to high-profile work in the rapidly evolving and controversial field of autophagy.
If a cell has damaged parts or been invaded by bacteria, it can either remove these harmful substances or die. This is autophagy’s function: it is the cell’s dynamic recycling mechanism. Cells can also use autophagy to feed on themselves during starvation.
Deretic finds it intriguing. “You have a metabolic aspect and you have a quality control aspect,” he says, “and very few things have both of those.”
Delving into a novel cellular function is perilous, especially when most biologists have yet to realize its significance. When he started looking into autophagy, Deretic had already received grants with different research objectives. His early forays into the new field eventually pioneered the application of autophagy as an antimicrobial tool by manipulating the process to kill tuberculosis bacteria in immune cells.
Deretic remembers those days fondly. “Because it was such a rapidly developing field,” he says, “you could really do spectacular science and make breakthroughs on a yearly basis, and that's what I got accustomed to.”
Becoming accustomed to breakthroughs meant multiple publications in prominent journals like Science and Nature, bringing more recognition to UNM, and Deretic realizes the benefits that his research brings to New Mexico.
“I'm not in science to work for money or anything like that,” he says, laughing. “I'm here for interest, and it's funny enough that in New Mexico I could pursue those.”
That interest recently garnered an $11 million National Institutes of Health grant to establish the Autophagy, Inflammation and Metabolism in Disease Center at the UNM Health Sciences Center, the first NIH-funded autophagy center of its kind.
Deretic is proud that, with the help of HSC leadership, he has attained valuable funding for the university and the state. He also hopes it will aid future autophagy researchers.
“I am particularly happy that it's actually not for me,” he says. “It's for the environment, the junior faculty and their students. This should give a boost to a lot of different things. It's really not personal, not my career – it's about multiple careers.”