For David Persing, MD, PhD, his introduction to medical practice began in a tiny clinic in a remote village in Guatemala. He’d gone there with his church to rebuild a school after a devastating earthquake, and met a physician who was an inspiring figure as he struggled to care for local people in rudimentary facilities.
“I was exposed to a lot of third-world medicine and the dramatic effect it had on people’s lives, which motivated me to pursue medicine,” says Dr. Persing, who grew up in the Silicon Valley.
When he returned to San Jose State University to begin his junior year, he dropped music performance classes to focus instead on pre-med.
Before beginning medical school at UCSF, he completed a paid summer fellowship with Philip Coffino, MD, PhD, UCSF professor of microbiology and immunology. The time he spent time in the lab, learning about the effects of mutagenesis on cells in tissue culture, had an enormous influence on his future career track.
It also helped support his young family. He and his wife, Susan, had three children in the years he was at UCSF. Their family now includes eight children, ages 17 to 34, and seven grandchildren.
After two years of medical school, Dr. Persing began the PhD portion of his dual degree, performing laboratory studies of the hepatitis B virus with UCSF Professor Emeritus Donald Ganem, MD, and Harold Varmus, MD, a longtime UCSF faculty who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with UCSF Chancellor Emeritus J. Michael Bishop, MD.
“My PhD training served as the launching pad for the rest of my career,” Dr. Persing says. It also had an impact on one of his hobbies: restoring classic cars. As the story goes, Dr. Persing provided Ganem, Varmus and Bishop with IT support so invaluable that Bishop asked him to continue this service for as long as he was at UCSF. In return, Bishop gave Dr. Persing a great deal on his old 1964 Porsche 356 Cabriolet. Dr. Persing still owns the car, which has now been meticulously restored “down to the last rusty body panel.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Persing had become an acknowledged expert in the emerging field of molecular diagnostics based on the technology of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). “It’s the fundamental technique that made DNA/RNA diagnostics possible,” he says. “Working in the tissue culture lab at UCSF one afternoon I thought, I think I should specialize in that and leverage my genetics degree and my interest in pathology.”
He applied it first to his own research lab at Yale University during a clinical pathology residency, and then designed and operated the Mayo Clinic’s first PCR lab. Later, he became a scientific founder at Seattle biotech company Corixa (since acquired by GlaxoSmithKline).
Today, Dr. Persing is Executive Vice President and Chief Medical and Technology officer at Silicon Valley molecular diagnostics company Cepheid, where he’s helped make molecular testing for critical infections like tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV faster, more accurate and less expensive, allowing improved diagnoses in over 13,000 hospitals and clinics worldwide. It’s a development that has been widely hailed as “game changing”. Soon he hopes to take the technology back to that remote Guatemalan clinic.
Dr. Persing has never forgotten the impact of that clinic, other financial support during his MD/PhD program, and the summer research fellowship. “I greatly appreciate the opportunity it provided and I’d like to make that happen for others,” he says.
He and Susan recently committed $50,000 to support the Pathways Summer Explore Program, part of the new Bridges Curriculum’s Inquiry component. The Persing scholarship will support at least two medical students annually who pursue summer research projects between their first and second years of medical school.
“I think it’s a great program,” Dr. Persing says. “It gives students exposure to the science behind medical principles that they might not otherwise get. That was certainly the case for me.”