16 Million People (and counting) Saved From Paralysis

Poliovirus and one of the Science Heroes that made this Headline Possible: Eckard Wimmer, Ph.D.

Polio has been around for centuries – but it’s almost gone – thanks to the efforts of many scientists, such as Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, as well as Eckard Wimmer, Ph.D., a National Academy of Sciences Scholar. Polio was first described clinically back in 1789 but it wasn’t until nearly a century later in 1894 that the first polio epidemic occurred. Polio peaked in 1952 when 3,145 people died and thousands more were paralyzed[1]. Around this time, the first vaccines were introduced which had a profound impact reducing the incidence of this disease and inspired one scientist in particular who went on to achieve breakthroughs in poliovirus after fleeing Berlin at the height of WWII, then later fleeing East Germany to continue his studies.

Dr. Wimmer, then a chemist, became fascinated by poliovirus as the first example of a self-replicating chemical and pathogenic entity, “a chemical with a life cycle”, and dug in to research its biology[2][3]. He and his lab were the first to sequence a eukaryotic RNA virus. They also elucidated its unique structure[4] (the first RNA virus to be linked to a protein later discovered to be involved in RNA replication) as well as to decipher the genetic organization of the poliovirus genome. These groundbreaking efforts enabled Dr. Wimmer to chemically synthesize the poliovirus genome – essentially becoming the first to successfully synthesize a living organism outside a cell[5]. In short, the world’s first test-tube virus was “born”, and, along with it, the dawning of the age of synthetic biology.

However, the concept of artificially inducing life in a test-tube didn’t sit well with everyone: the entire world seemed to have a reaction. Some dished high praise while others condemned the work as irresponsible and unethical. Fast forwarding a few years, scientists eventually came to appreciate the value of computer-aided synthesis of viral recoded genomes to enable rapid development of new vaccines. And, most recently, Dr. Wimmer’s research determined the key step in poliovirus morphogenesis[6], discovering how the virus literally takes its shape – something that has eluded scientists for decades.

More than 300 publications later, a prestigious Robert Koch Gold Medal, a lifetime of contributions to the field of virology and great strides towards winning the battle against infectious diseases, not to mention becoming a pioneer of the field of synthetic biology, Dr. Wimmer has earned honorable mention with the legendary names of Salk and Sabin. Dr. Wimmer continues his research today as a Distinguished Professor at Stony Brook University. Read his full biography here.

KNect365, a subsidiary of Informa, is both honored and privileged to host Dr. Wimmer as our keynote speaker for our Bioprocess International (BPI) – Viral Safety conference in Boston September 26-28, 2017. Dr. Wimmer will reflect on his illustrious career, specifically, the challenges and advances of over 50 years of research on poliovirus, how the fields (and controversy) of pathogen safety and synthetic biology have evolved, and to muse on where these fields may be headed. To learn more about this event or to take advantage of the last few days of early-bird registration specials, visit the BioProcess International Conference agenda.



[1] Sass EJ, Gottfried G, Sorem A, eds. (1996). Polio’s legacy: an oral history. Washington, D.C: University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-0144-8.

[2] http://www.stonybrook.edu/happenings/facultystaff/eckard-wimmer-receives-international-award-for-lifetime-achievement/ Stony Brook University Faculty/Staff Highlights Research. November 26, 2016.

[3]  Cello, J.; Paul, A.; Wimmer, E. (2002). “Chemical synthesis of poliovirus cDNA: generation of infectious virus in the absence of natural template”. Science. 297 (5583):

[4] Yogo, Y; Wimmer, Eckard (1972). “Sequence studies of Poliovirus RNA II Polyadenylic Acis at 3′-Terminus of Poliovirus RNA”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America69: 1877–1882. doi:10.1073/pnas.69.7.1877.

[5] Molla, Akhteruzzaman; Paul, A.V.; Wimmer, Eckard (1991). “Cell free, de novo synthesis of poliovirus”. Science254 (5038): 1647–1651. PMID 1661029doi:10.1126/science.1661029.

[6] Liu, Y.; Wang, C.; Mueller, S.; Paul, A.; Wimmer, E.; Jiang, P (2010). “A direct interaction between proteins 2CATPase and VP3 is required for enterovirus morphogenesis”. PLoS Pathogens6 (8): e1001066. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001066.

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