EMINENT SCIENTIST RECEIVES $100,000
LEMELSON-MIT LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Dr. Sidney Pestka Recognized for
Groundbreaking Research on Anti-Viral Treatments
Chicago (May 3, 2006) — Dr. Sidney Pestka, chairman
of the Department of Molecular Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology
at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, will receive the
$100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for his seminal
work on interferons. This work led to groundbreaking treatments
for chronic hepatitis B and C, multiple sclerosis and cancers. The
annual award, which recognizes a remarkable individual for his or
her life-long commitment to improving society through invention,
will be given tonight at a private ceremony at the Museum of Contemporary
“Dr. Pestka’s interferon discoveries and subsequent
inventions have made a profound impact on medicine and health care,”
said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which
gives the annual award. “His work has opened doors to new
treatments for millions of people who suffer from devastating diseases
and it has fueled the multi-billion dollar biotherapeutics market.”
Dr. Harold L. Paz, former Dean of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
in Piscataway, N.J., considers Pestka’s work to be “a
critical catalyst in the development of the biotechnology industry.”
In the Beginning
Alick Isaacs and Jean Lindenmann of the National Institute for
Medical Research in London discovered interferons in 1957, the year
Pestka earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton University.
They observed that when a virus attacked chicken cells, the cells
secreted a protein. Isaacs and Lindenmann called this protein interferon.
Years later, along with other scientists, they demonstrated that
human cells also release interferons when they are infected with
a virus. The interferons then migrate to other parts of the body
and protect neighboring healthy cells from the viral infection.
“The great promise of interferon as an antiviral agent was
evident from the moment of its discovery,” said Pestka. But
little was understood about interferons at the time, especially
how to produce them in the quantities and quality needed to manufacture
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A Purifying Invention
Beginning in 1969, Pestka engrossed himself in the study of interferons
at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey.
Using his colleague Stan Stein’s method to measure proteins,
Pestka invented a system called reverse phase high-performance liquid
chromatography (RP-HPLC) for protein purification, to isolate and
purify interferon proteins. Today, this innovative method for separating
and analyzing proteins is used in laboratories all over the world.
Pestka’s laboratory was the first to purify interferons-alpha
and beta, which resulted in his discovery that human alpha-interferons
are a family of 12 proteins, not just one as scientists originally
thought. This discovery laid the groundwork for a better understanding
of the activities and functions of interferons. At that time, only
small quantities of crude preparations of interferons were used,
which made it hard to discern the activity for which they were responsible.
Once purified interferon was available, its activities could be
determined and its use as a treatment for viral diseases and cancers
was identified. Purification also facilitated Food & Drug Administration
approval since the agency requires a defined and purified product
before clearing it for human use.
In addition to purifying interferons, Pestka also developed an
innovative technology to clone alpha and beta interferons. Unlike
other cloning techniques, Pestka’s method did not require
knowledge of protein, gene or messenger RNA (mRNA) sequences. Instead,
he translated mRNA into active proteins that could be measured by
their unique activities. This invention created new capabilities
for scientists to clone interferons and other proteins without the
need to know their structure.
As a result of Pestka’s ability to isolate, purify and clone
interferons, he produced recombinant interferon-alpha for clinical
trials nearly a full year before anyone else. In 1986, the FDA approved
interferon-alpha for use in humans to treat hairy cell leukemia.
It was later approved for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B and
C, and cancers such as malignant melanoma, follicular lymphoma,
some leukemias and AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma.
Pestka’s patented inventions are the foundation of a $6 billion
global market for interferon biotherapeutics, which provide life-saving
treatments for millions of people. For instance, there are more
than 600 million people in the world with hepatitis B and C who
could potentially be treated with interferon therapies.
But according to Pestka, the best is yet to come. “Interferons
have not yet been used to their full capacity,” he said. “We
still have to develop new ways to use them and treat viral diseases,
cancers and other illneses.”
In 1990, Pestka founded Pestka Biomedical Laboratories (PBL) to
continue his research on antiviral compounds and provide high-quality
interferons to the research community. PBL (http://www.pblbio.com)
is the only company that supplies all the human interferons to investigators
worldwide. Pestka and his team plan to utilize interferons to develop
new treatments for many diseases, especially for cancer and viral
diseases. They have also developed and patented ultra interferons™,
which are 20 to 30 times more potent than current interferon drugs.
A major goal is to deliver these interferons directly to tumor sites
to minimize the toxic side effects of systemic administration.
The Next Generation
In addition to his work as founder and chief scientific officer
at Pestka Biomedical Laboratories, Pestka continues to pass on his
knowledge by teaching classes and chairing the Department of Molecular
Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical
School. Over the past 35 years he has trained numerous postdoctoral
fellows, visiting scientists and pre-doctoral students from 20 countries
and five continents.
The Lemelson-MIT Program will also award James Fergason, a pioneer
in the field of liquid crystal displays, with the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize at tonight’s ceremony.
ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
The Lemelson-MIT Program aims to enable and inspire young people
to pursue creative lives and careers. It particularly encourages
young people to engage in invention and to pursue sustainable new
solutions to real world problems. It accomplishes this mission through
outreach activities and annual awards, including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize, the largest single cash prize in the United States for invention,
and the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, which
recognizes the nation’s most talented inventors and innovators,
and promotes them as living role models to encourage future generations
to follow their examples.
Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world’s most prolific inventors,
and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation,
a private philanthropy that celebrates and upports inventors and
entrepreneurs in order to strengthen social and economic life. More
information is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent/.
UMDNJ-ROBERT WOOD JOHNSON MEDICAL SCHOOL
As one of the nationís leading comprehensive medical schools,
UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (http://rwjms.umdnj.edu),
with campuses in New Brunswick, Piscataway and Camden, is dedicated
to the pursuit of excellence in education, research, health care
delivery and the promotion of community health for the residents
of New Jersey. With 2,400 full-time and volunteer faculty, the medical
school maintains educational programs at the undergraduate, graduate
and postgraduate levels for more than 1,500 students, as well as
continuing education courses for health care professionals and community
education programs. The Medical School also hosts 85 centers and
institutes; among them are The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, an
institute that Pestka initiated when he arrived at RWJMS in 1986
and where he is a program director.
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