Rahul Desikan sits at his dining room table, a large computer screen before him, and works on his latest scientific paper. He types a single letter, then another, then another. For a man in a hurry, desperately trying to rid the world of terrible diseases, it’s an excruciatingly slow process.
Using a special mouse strapped to his forehead that detects his smallest movement, Desikan moves a cursor around an on-screen keyboard. When he finds the letter he wants, he clicks a button with his right thumb, and it appears in a white space to the side. Repeating the process over and over, he debates research ideas with colleagues, analyzes reams of data and competes for grants. He types so much that he occasionally wears out the clicker.
Moaning softly, he looks toward a caregiver sitting nearby. “Are you thirsty?” she asks. He shakes his head slightly. “Hot?” He makes another low sound, and she loosens his fleece vest and adjusts the neck brace supporting his head.
A year and a half ago, this scientist’s future seemed boundless. He was a rising star at the University of California at San Francisco, a researcher of degenerative brain diseases. He had just begun the biggest study ever of the genetics of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease made famous by Lou Gehrig and Stephen Hawking.
Then his voice started changing. It got higher and took on an odd nasal quality. He started noticing small muscle twitches in his left arm and weakness in his fingers. ALS was diagnosed five months later.
Today, at 40, he spends most days working from a wheelchair in his home south of downtown. He is unable to talk, walk or hold his two young boys. He can move his thumb and turn his head a bit – but virtually nothing else.
A student of Greek tragedy, Desikan is acutely aware of the irony that ALS is now his personal nemesis. It seems like “the universe is playing a cruel joke on us,” he types, even a few sentences taking minutes to complete.
“I have lost my faith in god,” he continues. “I can’t believe that a loving being would ever do something so cruel.”
Yet that profound expression of despair doesn’t capture the full measure of Desikan’s existence – the undiminished brilliance and ambition, the bursts of outrageous humor and the moments of gratitude and joy.
His voice has been silenced. He hasn’t.
Since his diagnosis, Desikan has been an author, often the lead or senior one, of 25 papers in major academic journals on topics such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. As part of his huge ALS study, he and fellow researchers announced in April the discovery of two genes newly linked to the disease.
His unique approach involves combining massive sets of genetic data, MRI exams of the brain, markers of brain pathology and patients’ symptoms. His immodest goals include trying to prevent and treat, or at least to better understand, ALS and Alzheimer’s.
“His work is really opening new areas of research in ALS that hopefully will benefit others down the line,” said Celeste Karch, a neuroscientist at Washington University School of Medicine who frequently collaborates with Desikan.
Already ravaged by that disease, he is unlikely to be saved by his own discoveries. But his scientific pursuits – along with the relatives and friends who pour into his house every week – remain his salvation. “I love my research, and it gives me reason to live,” he types during an hours-long interview.
“Before, I felt that I needed to prove to others that I was good,” he types. “Now I don’t give a s— about what people think. I do science because I love it and I’m good at it. It gives me purpose, and I feel that I can help people like me.”
When Hawking died in March at 76, after ringing up a lifetime of groundbreaking accomplishments in astronomy, friends immediately thought of Desikan.
“Rahul could do the same, if he gets the time,” said Leo Sugrue, a UCSF doctor who runs a neuroradiology lab with him. “That’s the big question.”
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Desikan first attracted attention during his medical and doctoral studies at Boston University, when he and researchers at Harvard University created a “brain atlas” that allows clinicians to label brain regions, measure their size via scans and track the effect of medication. In 2015, after a residency in San Diego, he moved to UCSF for a two-year fellowship in neuroradiology and began cranking out scientific articles at a torrid pace.
To the residents he trained, he was beloved for his skillful teaching, sense of fun and wickedly funny imitations. To his superiors, he was a rare talent – one of the few radiologists with a deep knowledge and love of genetics, which he coupled with imaging and clinical information to delve into neurodegenerative diseases.
“He was on the most rapid trajectory of an academic that I think I’d ever seen,” said Christopher Hess, chairman of the UCSF radiology department. “I have met very few people who have true genius, and he would be at the top of the list.”
In the fall of 2016, UCSF offered Desikan an assistant professorship and his own lab. It was around then that his voice started to change. He initially assumed he had a sinus infection. A few weeks later, while bathing his older son, his left arm felt weak. He told friends he was worried about ALS.
“You’re crazy,” Sugrue retorted; he was too young and too healthy to have ALS. More likely, he was exhausted. He was juggling a demanding job, an infant and a 2-year-old, with his wife, also a UCSF professor and physician, just back to work.
By early November, however, Desikan was slurring words so badly that he sounded drunk. He went to the emergency room, and Hess stayed up half the night examining his brain scan. “There’s nothing on it,” he told Desikan. A muscle test was inconclusive.
More months passed, his symptoms coming and going. Doctors treated him for a vitamin B12 deficiency and a rare form of a neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis.
He kept working. In early 2017, he identified the two new genes associated with ALS. The next month, he suddenly became so short of breath that he was hospitalized. The same muscle test was repeated, and this time it showed twitches throughout his body, a telltale sign. He was discharged on Valentine’s Day and referred to the university’s ALS clinic. Three days later came the official diagnosis.
“I felt like I was getting a death sentence, and my wife and I are shattered,” he types. “What would happen to our kids?”
ALS destroys the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement. The disease is diagnosed in about 6,000 people in the United States every year. Most die within five years, usually of respiratory failure. The majority of cases, including Desikan’s, aren’t inherited, although genetic variations may make some people more susceptible to the disease.
(Banner Photo : Rahul Desikan, a scientist studying ALS at the University of California at San Francisco, and his wife, Maya, are pictured at their home. Must credit: Photo by Nick Otto for The Washington Post)
(Read Full Story in Washington Post)