Stony Brook Professor Receives International Award for Achievement in Infectious Disease Research
Eckard Wimmer’s work on Poliovirus and Synthetic Biology makes him Robert Koch Gold Medal Awardee for 2012
STONY BROOK, NY, November 19, 2012 –Eckard Wimmer, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology at Stony Brook University was selected to receive the 2012 Robert Koch Gold Medal, a prestigious international scientific award by the Robert Koch Foundation under the patronage of the German Minister of Health. The award recognizes Professor Wimmer’s lifetime achievements in infectious diseases, specifically his groundbreaking research on the poliovirus and as a pioneer in the new discipline of synthetic biology. He accepted the award on November 9, at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften.
The Robert Koch Gold Medal is one of Germany’s most prestigious awards given to scientists. Since 1960, medal awardees have included accomplished international scientists in biology, microbiology, and other biomedical research disciplines. The award is named for Robert Koch, a German physician who discovered the cause of several infectious diseases, including the bacteria causing tuberculosis. He received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1905.
“For decades Dr. Wimmer has had a tremendous impact on the advancement of infectious diseases research, from his unraveling of the poliovirus to his more recent work in the emerging field of synthetic biology,” said Samuel L. Stanley Jr. M.D., President of Stony Brook University. “A long-time professor at Stony Brook University, Dr. Wimmer’s expertise and insight as a researcher remains invaluable to his Stony Brook colleagues and students.”
According to the Robert Koch Foundation, Dr. Wimmer is “a pioneer in modern virology whose research on the poliovirus, the causative agent of infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis, is a milestone of infectiology.” The Foundation classifies Dr. Wimmer’s body of work as one that has “defined our understanding of the interaction between the virus and its host, and at the same time has yielded important new approaches for fighting the disease. He can be considered as a pioneer in the new discipline of synthetic biology.”
“This award recognizes Dr. Wimmer’s monumental contributions to bioscience research on an international scale,” said Kenneth Kaushansky, M.D, Senior Vice President for the Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine. “Dr. Wimmer’s findings have been essential to the understanding of how polio and other viruses cause human disease and revolutionized the approach medicine is taking to create novel ways to address a myriad of infectious diseases.”
“Dr. Wimmer’s work over many years in the area of poliovirus genome research has been astounding and has opened doors to new and groundbreaking areas of microbiology research,” says Jorge L. Benach, Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor, Chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology, and Director, Center for Infectious Diseases, Stony Brook University. “This award recognizes the magnitude of Dr. Wimmer’s work. Our department is privileged to have him as a lead researcher, faculty mentor and educator.
“I am honored to receive this prestigious award from the Robert Koch Foundation,” says Dr. Wimmer. “Those of us who have received this medal hope to honor it by continuing to work diligently toward new discoveries that impact the successful treatment of dangerous infectious diseases around the globe.”
A faculty member at Stony Brook since 1974 and Chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology between 1984 and 1999, Dr. Wimmer has worked for decades predominantly on poliovirus. He is internationally known for this work, which includes the elucidation of the chemical structure of the poliovirus genome in the late 1970s and subsequent discoveries based on the mechanisms of poliovirus pathogenesis and the human receptor for poliovirus. These landmark discoveries have served to stimulate international research in virology and cell biology.
More specifically, Dr. Wimmer published the first de novo, cell-free synthesis of a virus (poliovirus), which greatly stimulated molecular studies of viral replication. This was capped in 2002 with the first chemical-biochemical test-tube synthesis of any organism (again poliovirus) in the absence of a natural template. This strategy has led to studies of the structure and function of a virus to an extent not possible before.
The Robert Koch Foundation cited Dr. Wimmer’s many discoveries, all of which contributed to his selection as the recipient of the 2012 Gold Medal. The Foundation summarized Dr. Wimmer’s body of work and its significance to science: “The sequencing and clarification of the gene organization of the polio virus; the discovery of a new mode of protein translation; the first cell-free synthesis of a virus in an extract of non-infected cells; and the first de novo synthesis of an organism (polio virus) without involvement of a natural matrix. This last research has later led to the development of new strategies for producing viral vaccines based on computer-generated genomes with hundreds of mutations. These are currently being tested not only for polio, but also for other viruses that are pathogenic for humans."
Trained as an Organic Chemist, Dr. Wimmer says he chose viruses as a subject for his scientific inquiries because throughout his career he has been intrigued by their dual nature as chemicals and self-replicating, pathogenic entities, that is, as “chemicals with a life cycle.” This is apparent in many of his nearly 300 research papers.
Earlier this year, Dr. Wimmer was named a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. He is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His other honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Research Foundation of the State University of New York (2008); Fellow, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften Leopoldina von 1652 (1998); Fellow, American Academy for Microbiology (1994), and two Merit Awards from the National Institutes of Health (1988, 1998). In 2010, Dr. Wimmer received the Beijerinck Prize in Virology from The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Editor’s note: Dr. Wimmer lives in Setauket, N.Y., with his wife, Dr. Astrid Wimmer.
Caption: Stony Brook University Distinguished Professor Dr. Eckard Wimmer received the 2012 Robert Koch Gold Medal for his lifetime achievements in infectious diseases research. Flanking Dr. Wimmer at the award ceremony are, from left: Dr. Hubertus Erlen, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Robert Koch Foundation; and Annette Widmann-Mauz, Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health.