Sidney Pestka

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Medicine

For pioneering achievements that led to the development of the biotechnology industry, to the first recombinant interferons for the therapy 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.”

Sidney Pestka describes the function of Interferon

Sidney Pestka is known as the “Father of Interferon.”

And with good reason: Pestka’s formative work on interferon—a group of proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of pathogens, like viruses, parasites or tumor cells—has led to the development of antiviral treatments for diseases like chronic hepatitis B and C, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Pestka is the first scientist to purify interferon, to clone mature interferon and to develop a commercialized recombinant therapeutic designed to boost the number of interferon in the human body to fight infection.

“Producing and moving ahead with interferon demonstrated that we could make a biotherapeutic safely without any adverse effects to the environment, to the world,” Pestka said in his National Medal of Technology award video in 2001. “So just from the point of view of the diseases that it can now treat that were virtually untreatable before, interferon has made an impact.”

Pestka received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Princeton University in 1957, and his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1961.

After completing his medical internships—in pediatrics and medicine—he accepted a position at the National Heart Institute, researching genetic code, protein synthesis and ribosome function, and later, he joined the National Cancer Institute, where he continued his work on protein synthesis.

But it wasn’t until 1969, when he began working at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, that he initiated his studies of interferon.

“And I’m still working on it,” he said in 2001, laughing.

Throughout the course of his career, Pestka has collected more than 270 U.S. and foreign patents, and published more than 400 papers and edited five books related to protein biosynthesis and interferon.

By Sydni Dunn