Dr. Pestka is known as the “Father of Interferon” for his seminal work on interferon that gave birth to what is, today, a $6 billion dollar market directed at the therapy of hepatitis, multiple sclerosis, cancer, and other diseases that affect mankind. He was the first to purify interferon, the first to clone mature interferons and the first to develop a commercialized recombinant biotherapeutic—interferon alpha. Many of his achievements have broad application in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.
Pestka graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in chemistry from Princeton University (1957) and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (1961). After graduating from medical school, he was an intern in medicine and pediatrics. Afterwards, he worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the laboratory of Dr. Marshall W. Nirenberg, where he was part of the team working on the genetic code, protein synthesis and ribosome function—work that led to Nirenberg’s 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
In 1966, Pestka moved to the NIH’s National Cancer Institute to concentrate his research on protein synthesis. Three years later, he left the NIH to go to the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey, where he focused on defining how antibiotics worked and proteins are synthesized and, later, how to purify interferons. At the Institute, he was the first to purify interferon alpha and beta; to develop reverse phase high-performance liquid chromatography (RP-HPLC) for protein purification; to genetically engineer interferons; and to manufacture interferons for human therapy. It was here that he also discovered anti-messenger RNA (“Antisense-mRNA”), a method to shut off expression of any gene.
Today, Dr. Pestka serves as Professor at the Department of Molecular Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. At RWJMS he identified the interferon receptors and, in the process, discovered several interleukins and their receptors. Using a novel technology application of FRET (Foerster or Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer) that Dr. Pestka developed during a 1976 collaboration, he demonstrated how proteins interact with their receptors in living cells.
Dr. Pestka is also Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of PBL InterferonSource, a biotechnology company focused on providing scientists around the world with interferon-related products, services, information and know-how. Dr. Pestka’s research is currently focused on interferons and cytokines; receptors and signal transduction; immunotherapy of cancer; and prevention, treatment and control of cancers and viral diseases.
Dr. Pestka holds 270 U.S. and foreign patents. He has published 430 papers and edited five books related to protein biosynthesis and interferons — several of which are classics and still cited today. Dr. Pestka is a 2001 National Medal of Technology laureate and has received the 2001 Seymour & Vivian Milstein Award for Excellence in Interferon and Cytokine Research; the 2004 Warren Alpert Foundation Scientific Prize from Harvard Medical School; the 2006 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award; the 2009 Molecular Biology Medal from the National Institutes of Health for his role in deciphering the genetic code and the mechanism of protein synthesis; and the 2010 Edward J. Ill Outstanding Medical Research Scientist Award for Basic Biomedical Research. He holds an honorary doctorate in science from Rider University (1987) and has played an important role at the International Society for Interferon and Cytokine Research, where he served as secretary (1989-1993, 1996-2005), vice president (1992-1993) and president (1994-1995).