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Joseph G. Gleeson, MD

Profile written by Doris Trauner, MD

Joseph G. Gleeson, MD
Joseph G. Gleeson, MD

Joseph Gerard Gleeson was born in Canoga Park, California, and grew up in Woodland Hills, 22 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. He was the oldest of four boys, so he quickly became accustomed to orderly chaos, a perfect training ground for his future endeavors. He attended an all-male Catholic high school in Encino, CA, where he enjoyed participating in high school plays and musicals. Not surprisingly, he usually had the lead role in those performances. After high school, Dr. Gleeson attended UC San Diego for his undergraduate education where he majored in chemistry. He spent a brief period doing a research elective in the laboratory of Dr. Doris Trauner, participating in a project on mitochondrial activity in an animal model of Reye syndrome. After graduation, he moved on to the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine for his medical degree. During that time he worked with Dr. Peter Huttenlocher, one of the leaders in child neurology, and this experience solidified his interest in entering that field. It was during this time that, while filling out forms required for a research elective, he met the love of his life, MariJo Logeman. That research elective may have had the most lasting impact of any he did; they’ve been together ever since, and have been married for 28 years.

Following medical school, Dr. Gleeson moved further east, to Boston, where he fulfilled a dream of working with one of the people he most admired, Dr. Joseph Volpe. He completed his pediatrics and child neurology training at Boston Children’s Hospital, followed by a research fellowship at Harvard with Dr. Christopher Walsh. During this time, his research interest in the genetic underpinnings of neurodevelopmental disorders blossomed. His initial work focused on X-linked lissencephaly, and he identified the doublecortin (DCX) gene that was mutated in X-linked lissencephaly and double cortex syndrome, defined genotype-phenotype correlations, and provided a molecular diagnosis for patients. By studying DCX function, he defined the concept of nuclear-centrosome coupling in neuronal migration. He also demonstrated that DCX is a marker for neural stem cells, now a widely used marker, and received the Child Neurology Society Young Investigator Award for this work.

Dr. Gleeson was recruited to UC San Diego after completion of his fellowship. He set up a neurogenetics lab and developed productive relationships with clinicians and researchers around the world. In order to study rare genetic disorders, he traveled to the Middle East, where in some countries and communities there is a higher rate of consanguinity, and recruited and examined entire families with genetic disorders. He focused his research on identifying new causes for recessive pediatric brain disease, by traveling extensively in the Middle East for patient evaluations and ascertainment. Dr. Gleeson spent 1 month per year in the Middle East for 10 years, working with a number of outstanding collaborator, including the great Dr. Maha Zaki in Cairo, who has one of the busiest practices in the whole region. In doing so, these collaborations identified over half of the now 20+ genes mutated in Joubert syndrome (JS), and linked JS to the ciliopathies. He identified defects in ciliary function in patient cells, and performed the first cell-based screen to identify modulators of ciliogenesis, which defined actin-regulatory pathways. His recent work has focused on recent work is focused on identifying genes for neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders using a combination of recessive and de novo somatic mosaicism detection, to define potentially treatable conditions. He identified several mutations as potentially treatable neurodegenerative diseases. His current work includes the use of exome sequencing to improve ability to diagnose and treat disease.

Dr. Gleeson quickly rose through the ranks to Professor. He has remained at UC San Diego for his entire career, with the exception of a brief detour to the east coast, where he was the Hess Professor in the Laboratory for Brain Diseases at the Rockefeller Institute, and Director of Mendelian Genetics at the New York Genome Center. He is currently the Rady Professor of Neurosciences and Pediatrics at UC San Diego, as well as the Director of Neuroscience at the Rady Children’s Institute of Genomic Medicine at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego. During his career, he has amassed numerous accolades and research successes. He has enjoyed continuous grant funding for his research for many years. He has published over 200 research papers in prestigious journals. Among his many awards, he received the Young Investigator Award from the Child Neurology Society in 1998, the Klingenstein Award in the Neurosciences in 2001, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Award in Translational Research in 2005, and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2013. For many years he was a Howard Hughes Investigator.

Now, in 2020, Dr. Gleeson is the recipient of the Bernard Sachs Award of the Child Neurology Society. This award honors someone of international status who has done leading research in neuroscience with relevance to the care of children with neurological disorders. This describes Dr. Gleeson perfectly. His outstanding research has led to new understanding about neurogenetic disorders, and has opened the door to potential new treatments for previously untreatable conditions. He is an open and generous collaborator and colleague as well, encouraging people to join his research efforts and to participate in publishing their mutual work. He has amassed a very large number of collaborators for these reasons, as well as for the excitement that his research engenders in others. He genuinely cares about the patients with whom he interacts. He has always been very excited to see the many patients around the world first hand with the various conditions he was studying, and he has also always been very humbled by the difficulties the children and their parents experienced with the poor outcomes from these severe conditions. Those families have been a driving force in his tireless efforts to find new genes, new mechanisms, and potentially new treatments for those devastating conditions. Joe truly embodies the values and accomplishments underlying the Sachs award.

Teaching has been an important facet of Dr. Gleeson’s career as well. He has trained a large number of graduate students, medical students and post-doctoral research fellows, many of whom have gone on to academic careers of their own with independent grant funding. He is generous with his time and it is clear that he believes in preparing dedicated people to become the next generation of research investigators.

Along the way there has been another major driving force in Dr. Gleeson’s life – his family. Joe and MariJo have been married for 28 years; MariJo has a master’s degree in Public Health and works with early-stage pharmaceutical companies. They have three children, all pursuing their own dreams. The family enjoys walking, hiking, and traveling together. He also enjoys sailing and running, and has run in a large number of marathons over the past 16 years. Most recently, he began taking guitar lessons, and no doubt will master that craft as well.

Joe Gleeson is, in short, an extremely gifted, dedicated, and prolific physician scientist who has made and continues to make seminal discoveries that will one day lead to new treatments for devastating neurodevelopmental conditions. He is also a loving husband and father, a thoughtful and kind friend, a caring mentor, and an eager, generous and open colleague and collaborator. Perhaps one year he will serenade us with a guitar medley at a post-Covid (one can only hope!) CNS Meeting. Meanwhile we can expect a superb Sachs lecture from a colleague most deserving of this award.