Virus Fighter

Sidney Pestka M’61: The dream of a single medicine.

Many of the patients who have been treated successfully for diseases ranging from Hepatitis A to leukemia to multiple sclerosis have Dr. Sidney Pestka M’61 to thank for their health.

In June the scientist was thanked for his contributions, when he was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology. Pestka was cited “for pioneering achievements that led to the development of the biotechnology industry, to the first recombinant interferons for the treatment” of previously untreatable diseases, “to fundamental technologies leading to other biotherapeutics, and for basic scientific discoveries in chemistry, biochemistry, genetic engineering, and molecular biology.” 

Now professor and chair of the department of molecular genetics, microbiology, and immunology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Pestka began his groundbreaking work in 1969 on interferon—a virus-fighting protein found naturally in our bodies.

“The possibility that a single medicine could treat all viral diseases was alluring, a dream,” said Pestka in a statement released by the school. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved his synthesized interferon in 1986, and his work has been the basis for more than 100 patents as well as medical treatments. Among the diseases treated by interferon today are hepatitis B and C, malignant melanoma, bladder-cell carcinoma, some leukemias, AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma, and multiple sclerosis.

A decade ago, Pestka founded PBL Biomedical Laboratories to create interferon-based cancer treatments, such as a technology to deliver the protein directly to tumors and release it slowly over time; he is also directing research projects to develop “ultra interferons,” up to 30 times more potent than current interferon drugs. “These technologies together will enable PBL to develop more effective cancer treatments with dramatically reduced side effects,” Pestka says.

As director of the Center for Molecular Therapeutics, under development at Robert Wood Johnson, Pestka will focus on producing new treatments for cancer, viral diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

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