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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 Art Chicago.

“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 effective therapies.

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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.

Global Impact

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.


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/.


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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