For Immediate Release
Contact: Susan Preston
UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
Internationally Renowned Scientist To Receive U.S. National
Medal of Technology
Dr. Sidney Pestka, professor
and chairman of the Department of Molecular Genetics, Microbiology
and Immunology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of the University
of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey will receive the National
Medal of Technology next month.
President George W.
Bush will present this award for scientific and technologic accomplishment
to four individuals and one corporate recipient during a White House
ceremony in June.
Dr. Pestka was cited
for his "for pioneering achievements that led to the development
of the biotechnology industry, to the first recombinant interferons
for the treatment of cancers, leukemias, viral diseases such as
hepatitis B and C, and multiple sclerosis; to fundamental technologies
leading to other biotherapeutics; and for basic scientific discoveries
in chemistry, biochemistry, genetic engineering and molecular biology
from protein biosynthesis to receptors and cell signaling."
The National Medal of
Technology, which is the nation's highest achievement for technology,
was established by Congress in 1980 and is administered by the U.S.
Department of Commerce. It recognizes men and women who embody the
spirit of American innovation and have advanced the nation's global
competitiveness. The medal recognizes groundbreaking contributions
that help commercialize technologies, create jobs, improve productivity
and stimulate the nation's growth and development.
In congratulating Dr.
Pestka, Dr. Harold L. Paz, dean of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical
School, said "Dr. Pestka has been a leader among academicians in
bringing achievements in research from concept to basic research
to practical application. He has fostered new industries in multiple
areas, and developed new medicines for previously untreatable diseases."
The award is based on
a series of achievements that began in 1969 when Dr. Pestka began
a project to determine what interferon was. He was enticed by the
failure of numerous scientists to define interferon - a substance
that held the possibility of curing viral diseases that had challenged
the ingenuity of medicine for centuries. Such diseases - hepatitis,
influenza, Ebola, Dengue, Yellow Fever, West Nile, and even the
common cold - can be pandemics or dreaded fevers which kill over
90 percent of those infected.
"The possibility that
a single medicine could treat all viral diseases was alluring,"
Dr. Pestka said, "After taking a few months to evaluate the scientific
basis and potential of interferon, I decided to take the substantial
risk and commit resources to pursue this research."
Seventeen years later,
his dream was fulfilled when the interferon he developed was approved
by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1986. During this
period, Dr. Pestka made a remarkable series of discoveries and developments,
"often bucking prevailing beliefs and designing innovative solutions
to problems along the way to success."
His achievements brought
a portfolio of groundbreaking patents for Hoffmann-La Roche where
he did the work at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology. Dr.
Pestka's efforts led to the commercialization of interferons to
treat viral diseases, cancers and multiple sclerosis in the U.S.
and around the world. His discoveries created new products and numerous
jobs in the manufacture, production and distribution and treatment
of diseases with interferon. The market for interferon today is
over a $5 billion.
In addition to interferon's
commercial impact, there was no general antiviral therapy available
before Dr. Pestka began his work on interferon; today, interferon
is the first and only general antiviral therapy. Interferon is used
to treat hepatitis B and C, diseases which have been diagnosed in
more than 300 million people worldwide. Interferons are used for
the treatment of cancers such as malignant melanoma and bladder
cell carcinoma, some leukemias, AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma, and
Dr. Pestka's breakthroughs
have made an enormous impact on the biotechnology and pharmaceutical
industries and on the development of new biotherapeutics for medicine.
His work is the basis of several U.S. and more than 100 foreign
patents. Interferon is a major product of several U.S. companies
and foreign companies almost all of which license interferon under
Dr. Pestka's patents, including Schering-Plough, Hoffmann-La Roche,
Amgen, Biogen and Berlex. Biogen's major product is Avonex, which
is used for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.
Dr. Pestka has been
professor and chairman of the Department of Molecular Genetics,
Microbiology and Immunology at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical
School in Piscataway since 1986.
He received his undergraduate
degree in chemistry from Princeton University in 1957 and his medical
degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in
After completing a pediatric
and medical internship at Baltimore City Hospitals, in 1962 he took
a position in the laboratory of Dr. Marshall W. Nirenberg at the
National Heart Institute, where he was part of the team working
on research involving the genetic code, protein synthesis and ribosome
function that led to Dr. Nirenberg receiving the Nobel Prize in
While in the Nirenberg
Laboratory, Dr. Pestka discovered how the genetic code of the mRNA
is translated into protein through the small ribosomal subunit,
a surprising discovery that was contrary to the scientific thinking
at that time. In several published peer-reviewed research papers,
he showed that miscoding by antibiotics such as streptomycin was
caused by the interaction with the ribosome.
His further study defined
how certain antibiotics affect protein synthesis. That led to the
understanding that half of the antibiotics in therapeutic use functioned
through the ribosome by different mechanisms he discovered. This
early work helped create new fundamental tenets about the mechanism
of proteins biosynthesis.
In 1966, Dr. Pestka
moved to the National Cancer Institute, where for three years he
continued his research on protein synthesis and began investigations
in other areas.
In 1969, he joined the
Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey, where
he initiated the work on interferon that was the basis of the work
for which the National Medal of Technology was awarded.
In addition to his teaching
and research activities at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School,
in 1990 Dr. Pestka founded PBL Biomedical Laboratories, a biotechnology
company developing interferon-based cancer treatments with the aim
finding ways to use interferons effectively against disease while
reducing the deleterious side effects which can accompany interferon
therapy. PBL's InterferonSource reagent business is the largest
manufacturer of interferon reagents in the world for research use.
As chairman and chief
scientific officer, he is directing research projects to develop
"ultra interferons "-the next generation of interferons which are
up to 30 times more potent than current interferon drugs. His work
has also led to the company's development of a Sustained Release
Protein Delivery ("SuRe-PD?") technology to deliver interferon directly
to tumors and release it slowly over time. Dr. Pestka said, "These
technologies together will enable PBL to develop more effective
cancer treatments with dramatically reduced side effects. We hope
to bring this therapy to market in less than six years."
The company supports
its drug development efforts with revenues generated by the sale
of biochemicals and with grants, such as Small Business Innovation
Research (SBIR) grants from the National Cancer Institute.
Dr. Pestka was inducted
into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame in 1993, and has received
numerous for his research including the Selman Waksman Award in
Microbiology and the Milstein Award from International Society for
Interferon and Cytokine Research;
Dr. Pestka is secretary
and former president of the International Society of Interferon
Research and has served on committees of several prominent organizations,
including the National Cancer Institute's Breast Cancer Task Force,
the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Scholarly Communication
with the People's Republic of China, and the Basic Pharmacology
Advisory Committee of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association
He has published several
books and written research articles for several prestigious peer-reviewed
scientific journals over the past 30 years.
As one of the top comprehensive
medical schools in the country, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical
School is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in education, research,
delivery of health care and the promotion of community health for
the residents of the state. The school maintains educational programs
at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels, as well
as continuing education courses for health professionals and community
education programs. With twenty basic science and clinical departments,
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School ranks in the top one-third in
the nation in terms of grant support per faculty member. The medical
school integrates a diversity of clinical programs conducted at
its thirty-seven hospital affiliates and numerous ambulatory care
sites in the region. The major institutes affiliated with the school
are The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the Cardiovascular Institute,
the Child Health Institute of New Jersey, the Center for Advanced
Biotechnology and Medicine, and the Environmental and Occupational
Health Sciences Institute.