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New York Is Next Stop for Famed UCI Molecular Biologist

Orange County

Research: Dr. Ian Lipkin, who identified the West Nile virus in the U.S., will depart for Columbia University.

September 03, 2001|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Ian Lipkin pulls out a printout from an Internet listserv where doctors around the world report on infections that have them mystified.

"These things come out all day long," said Lipkin, head of UC Irvine's Emerging Diseases Laboratory. "No one has any idea how to deal with [them]."

Lipkin, who founded the lab at UCI in 1990, is an explorer who, along with fellow researchers, hunts for unidentified microbes, trying to figure out which illnesses are caused by which viruses.

It was Lipkin who, in 1999, identified West Nile virus, previously unknown in the United States, as the cause of the encephalitis outbreak that killed seven people in the New York City area. The discovery catapulted the UCI physician and professor of neurobiology into the scientific spotlight and sent him to Japan, Germany, France, Italy and across the United States, attending conferences and collaborating with other researchers.

The West Nile discovery was the kind of research Lipkin thrives on, delving into the mysterious world of disease and turning up a cause. Working at the frontier of molecular biology, he seeks microbes he believes are responsible for a number of chronic diseases, including multiple sclerosis, autism, Alzheimer's disease and depression.

In his office, cardboard boxes are stacked in the corner, boxes he is packing to move to Columbia University. There, he will join the faculty of the Mailman School of Public Health in July 2002, drawn by the more extensive facilities the Ivy League school can offer and the closeness of premier researchers in New York.

"He's a star," said Allan Rosenfield, dean of the Mailman School. "His work on West Nile is just one indication of the high caliber of work he's engaged in."

Already Lipkin is commuting between the coasts, spending most weekends in the Upper West Side brownstone where his girlfriend and their two children have moved from their home in Laguna Beach.

He talks excitedly about going to Lincoln Center for the Mostly Mozart Festival and the greater scientific collaborations available in New York.

"He loves to travel," said David Relman, professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at Stanford University and a friend of Lipkin. "He likes the thrill of seeing or doing something for the first time."

Top academics often are tempted by offers of more money and better research facilities. Brian Mahy, a senior scientist at the National Center for Infectious Disease and a friend of Lipkin, said the professor felt he wasn't receiving the kind of institutional support he needed at UCI, including a secretary.

Columbia's Rosenfield said Lipkin also had an offer from another institution in the Northeast.

For Lipkin's use, Columbia is converting two floors of a 1926 building on its Health Sciences campus, a total of 6,300 square feet. From his 19th-floor window, Lipkin will look out on the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge.

"It's a major statement of Columbia's support for his work and research," said Catherine Murray, the Mailman School's associate dean for external affairs.

Thomas Cesario, dean of the UCI College of Medicine, said the university tried hard to keep Lipkin. "I think it's a sign of our growth that people like Ian get offers," he said. "When you get quality people, it's something that happens."

Cesario said medical schools are being squeezed financially. "I don't know what was offered in New York, but these are not easy times in academic medicine," he said.

Lipkin is an attractive recruit for any university. At 48, he's relatively young, with a reputation for cutting-edge research of the sort that made national headlines with West Nile. He's a compulsive worker, who often works through the weekends.

Lipkin grew up in Chicago, the son of a psychiatrist. He received his bachelor's degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, becoming one of the first men to spend four years at what had been a women's school.

When Lipkin entered Sarah Lawrence, he was interested in mythology, philosophy and cultural anthropology and curious about other parts of the world. But his organic chemistry professor made the subject come so alive that Lipkin turned to science. Still, at that time, Sarah Lawrence's only degree was a bachelor's in liberal arts.

He earned his medical degree at Rush Medical College in Chicago.

While he was a neurology resident at UC San Francisco in the early 1980s, two things set him on the path of what he calls "pathogen discovery." The first was the emergence of patients diagnosed with the then-mysterious disease AIDS.

The second, he told Sarah Lawrence students when he gave a commencement speech in 2000, was the discovery of prions, an infectious molecule in the membranes of cells that is neither a bacterium nor a virus.

Prions are thought to spread mad cow disease.

Lipkin said he was inspired by the discoverer of prions, Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a professor at UC San Francisco, who "pursued an iconoclastic hypothesis in the face of public ridicule."

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