‘I like collaborating with others; that’s where I find the magic.’
At 55, Steven Deeks is definitely a Big Man On Campus at San Francisco General Hospital, where he’s been prowling the halls since 1990. His resume is a hefty 77 pages, chock-full of accomplishments and publications in the HIV field. So it’s a bit surprising to find him sitting inside a rather small, minimalist office at Ward 86 on a March morning, not a fancy director’s one. It’s got a small desk, basic chair, his laptop, some filing cabinet space—not much more. It’s devoid of many personal touches, or many framed certificates that his illustrious career might warrant. That’s exactly how Deeks would like it, it seems.
Sure, he’s a big guy in the HIV world, but he’s a regular Joe, a bit shy in person, and friendly, quite curious about others. He actively seeks the media spotlight not for himself per se; rather, for his work, his projects, his patients, and his current HIV goal—working toward a cure. While he’s known as a talented and innovative researcher, a brilliant solo act on his own, Deeks likes to shine as a team player, hub, cheerleader, and co-captain of the big ship SCOPE at Ward 86.
“I like collaborating with others; that’s where I find the magic,” Deeks admits. “The more brains, the better,” he adds, smiling. He likes to be surrounded, likes bouncing ideas off others, likes “the concept of Team Science,” as he puts it. “I’ve never been a person who liked to build empires or just did the same thing over and over again,” Deeks explains. “I prefer to build a program that is quite plastic and can change direction very quickly to find those opportunities.”
He might also be talking about himself: a bright self-starter who learned to overcome early challenges in his family life, one who’s learned to prize flexibility and the ability to take lessons from the hard knocks, and most of all, to stay the course while strategically tacking. Right now, he’s bringing that approach to his biggest career challenge yet: the planned HIV remission trial others jokingly nickname “Jaws,” it’s so ambitious.
“I think the values that have dominated my career trajectory have been this drive—this work ethic—and the sense that anything you wanted to do you had to go and get; nothing was going to be handed to you,” explains Deeks, when asked to look back on his career path. He learned personal drive from his parents and the chronic adversity his family faced, along with two other family values: loyalty and honesty. “There was no tolerance for dishonesty in our household,” he recalls. “And the thing I grew to admire about my parents was loyalty to the family, despite all this chaos and all this drama—there was never any question of loyalty to the kids.” He has one younger brother.
Today, that drive and his loyalty apply to his work with the SCOPE cohort, his longtime professional home and family. Here, he’s a dedicated mentor and teacher to younger staff, and a trusted, beloved physician to patients. “It’s all a group effort,” he says of his team. “We have a lot of great people here.”
Deeks was born in Trenton, New Jersey, a city that takes pride in its manufacturing, working-class roots. A sign has long dangled under a bridge over the Delaware River, welcoming visitors: “Trenton Makes, The World Takes,” it declares. Deeks didn’t stay there long; his family moved south to Fort Dix, where he grew up in a trailer park. He’s open about how poor his family was for years and his father’s chronic battles with alcohol dependency. Today, Deeks is known as a compassionate doctor, one sensitive to the needs of clients living on the social and economic margins.
“It was a challenging time,” he says candidly of his childhood. ”We bounced around a fair amount at one point in time.” But he wants to correct any sense of deprivation: “Although I think my parents struggled, I had a loving family,” he stresses. “We had all we needed and we went to public schools.”
His father was a baker —“an extremely bright, very charismatic, hard-working guy,” he notes. His mother is a nurse; he may have gotten his compassionate streak from her. In the family, things went south when his father’s house burnt down. The elder Deeks reinvented himself as an AT&T salesman in Southern California, one good at his job.
By then Deeks had found his refuge in school, where he overcame a budding reputation as a third grade troublemaker to become a steady A student, usually the top of his class. “I was pretty into the math and sciences,” he says. After high school, he went to the University of California at Berkeley to study pre-med, a tough program where he thrived. He arrived at San Francisco General for his first residency in internal medicine in 1990. By then AIDS had reshaped the city and the hospital; it quickly reshaped his life, too. Along the way, Deeks also became a cross-country runner, and likes to bike.
He enjoys solving problems—and wants to relieve suffering. “What I like to do is identify two major disciplines and insert myself at the barrier of those disciplines, because that is where all the chaos and drama and innovation occurs,” he explains. He likes the idea of out of the box thinking. But he’s no cowboy, he insists. He believes in scientific rigor. His fondness for collaboration and “translational research” have shaped SCOPE and its expanding cure program.
“A true cohort is when you identify certain individuals and you enroll them in a study and follow them all the time,” Deeks says of the long-running SCOPE HIV observational study. “We didn’t do that,” he states. “We didn’t necessarily want to give people what we thought they needed, but we gave them what they wanted,” he explains. With SCOPE, he says, “We began to realize there was all this wealth of data that had been generated, which is actionable. We began to work with our colleagues to take their ideas into the clinic.” Here, what’s actionable is finding the right question to ask, then designing the experiment so it can be tested in a lab before trying it in his patients.
Deeks was among the first to help push HIV cure research forward and he continues to believe it’s a worthy goal. After all, we have a living example, the Berlin Patient. But he’s focused on remission as the next actionable step and is applying new insights from immunotherapy cancer studies. “There are all these new studies where, if you tickle these particular [immune] pathways, the host response is improved, both for chronic infection and malignant cells,” Deeks explains.
While no one can predict if the trial will produce a hoped-for breakthrough of remission, Deeks views it as a win-win either way. “We’re going to learn a lot in doing the study that will help us advance our understanding of the reservoir,” he says, summing up. “I wouldn’t be here, doing what I do, if I didn’t believe we have a chance of achieving remission. Whatever happens here, we’re poised to make some real strides.” —ACD