Gary Firestein, MD

The pages of this Web site are filled with the results of legions of researchers who spend long hours studying the intricate workings of the body – investigating what goes wrong in arthritis and how to make it right. We mention their names, their titles and their findings, but we usually don’t say much about who they really are and what brought them to arthritis research – as well as how they find inspiration to solve some of the most puzzling questions in medicine.  

For Gary S. Firestein, MD, inspiration can come from surfing a wave; Steffany Haaz, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins, finds it through dance and yoga; and James Jarvis, MD, achieves it by picking up a guitar. Meet these three Arthritis Foundation-funded researchers who live life to the fullest, inside and outside the lab.

Gary S. Firestein, MD, Professor of Medicine and Chief, Division of Rheumatology, Allergy & Immunology, University of California, San Diego

Gary Firestein, MD, is better known as a leading arthritis researcher than a surfer. In the 1990s, his research on cytokines contributed to the development of biologic response modifiers to treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA); his recent research has focused on how certain enzymes within cells control genes involved in inflammation. He is the 2006 recipient of the Arthritis Foundation’s Lee C. Howley Sr. Prize for arthritis research.

AT: Why are you a surfer?

GF: I learned to surf in my late 30s. I was looking for a sport I could share with my son. I fell in love with surfing, and perhaps because of that, he, being a typical teenager, didn’t like it. But I became an addicted surfer.

AT: What do you love about it?

GF: It took about six months of torment and humiliation before I started getting the hang of it, but now I enjoy the athleticism. The experience of catching a wave and riding it gives me a great feeling of accomplishment and exhilaration.

AT: Where have you gone to catch waves?

GF: Cloud Break in Fiji is the most challenging wave I’ve ever surfed. It breaks in the middle of the ocean, on top of a razor-sharp coral reef, with no land within a mile. I was convinced my wife increased our life insurance policy before she sent me on the trip as a birthday present.

AT: How has surfing influenced you as a researcher?

GF: I think recreation and surfing make me a better, more inquisitive researcher. I’m not sure I would have the ability to come up with as many ideas to pursue in the lab if I didn’t give my brain some downtime.

AT: What led you into rheumatology?

GF: I contemplated a number of specialties, and my interest was piqued when I became involved in a clinical research project on scleroderma heart disease. I was fascinated by the rheumatic diseases.

AT: Can you describe your research?

GF: I’ve focused on the pathogenesis of RA and novel therapeutics. Identifying how inflammatory proteins called cytokines are regulated inside cells may allow us to develop new treatments that can be taken orally, rather than injected, as current biologics are. To me, it’s more about the patients than the science. Will our work identify a novel target that might be useful at some point as a way of treating RA?