On the Front Lines of Fighting Disease

Chris Karp
Courtesy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Chris Karp

The winding career path of Chris Karp ’78 took a sharp turn just after he graduated from Brandeis with a bachelor’s in philosophy. Originally, he planned to travel in Europe for a few months before starting a doctoral program.

“I got back two and a half years later,” he laughs. His experiences during that time, which included working on refugee resettlement in Southeast Asia for an NGO, prompted him to get his medical degree, with the goal of becoming a hands-on clinician.

Instead, after internal-medicine and infectious-disease training, Karp spent 20 years as a molecular immunologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation, researching infectious, allergic and genetic diseases.

Then, in 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation came calling. “It was quite clear I could have a much bigger beneficial impact on the world at the foundation than anything that was likely to come out of my lab,” he says.

Today, as director of the organization’s Global Health Discovery & Translational Sciences program, Karp leads a team working on scientific and technological solutions for infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, as well as the development of tools that can improve the health of mothers and babies.

The Gates Foundation has ambitious goals, including the eradication of extreme poverty and disease, so it’s known for embracing bold ideas. It funds initiatives that the National Institutes of Health or other traditional funders might find too risky. It builds partnerships between academic institutions, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and nonprofits to tackle urgent health problems.

Karp has crisscrossed the globe — most recently traveling to India and Tanzania — to work with researchers who are investigating new vaccines, improved drugs and other innovative strategies aimed at saving lives. “It’s not passive funding,” he says. “It’s a more active approach. We think of it as investing for impact.”

For instance, the foundation has invested more than $40 million in a promising project that may reduce the threat of deadly mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever, which annually infects an estimated 390 million people worldwide. An Austral­ian scientist believed that Wolbachia — a bacterium naturally present in 60% of insect species, but not in the mosquitoes that transmit the dengue virus — could block the mosquitoes’ ability to transmit dengue. The foundation’s support helped validate that hypothesis. It then helped create a program now conducting trials of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes in 12 countries.

Karp entered Brandeis thinking he might become a professional violinist. He studied with music professor Robert Koff, whom he describes as “an extraordinary human being and a huge inspiration.” Nine years after Koff’s death in 2005, Karp helped establish the Robert Koff Scholarship in Music at Brandeis. Even now, Karp performs and occasionally records music, often with his brother, Parry, a cellist and chamber-music professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But, after all the twists and turns in his career, Karp’s dedication to the Gates Foundation is the driving force in his life. “It’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s just the ideal job. Well, it’s really not a job — it’s more like a passion.”

— Heather Salerno