Smithsonian Magazine Names John Wherry One of 'America's Young Innovators'

Smithsonian Magazine Names John Wherry One of 'America's Young Innovators'

October 11, 2008

(PHILADELPHIA – October 12, 2007) – A special issue of Smithsonian magazine profiles E. John Wherry, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Immunology Program at The Wistar Institute, naming him one of "37 Under 36: America's Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences."

The profile highlights Wherry's contributions to an effort under way at the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center to develop a universal vaccine against influenza, or flu, that would provide long-lasting protection against all strains of the virus, including those yet to emerge and the avian flu. The vaccine would reduce the need for annual vaccination programs and defend against pandemics. As conceived, the Wistar flu vaccine will also be more effective in protecting the at-risk elderly than current vaccines. With major funding from the federal government and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the universal flu vaccine project is headed by Wistar professor and Immunology Program leader Hildegund C.J. Ertl, M.D., director of the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center.

Influenza viruses are estimated to be associated with 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths annually in the United States, as well as hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. Wherry and the Wistar team of researchers hope to create a universal vaccine that would work against all strains of flu. Current flu vaccines have to be redesigned annually to account for evolving variations of the virus and are not always effective. A universal vaccine would eliminate this problem and protect against a flu pandemic, which occurs when a new strain of flu emerges that is both deadly and highly contagious. The 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

Current flu vaccines target two prominent protein molecules on the surface of the influenza virus. Because these proteins mutate constantly, the vaccines must be redesigned and readministered regularly to remain effective - thus the need for an annual flu shot. The Wistar-led research team aims to create a novel universal flu vaccine that will induce broad protection, lasting year after year. To achieve this goal, the scientists will design a vaccine directed against internal viral proteins that are less prone to mutation than the two proteins targeted by current vaccines. Based on the same research, they will also develop a "cocktail" of antibodies against the flu virus to be given as an early treatment for flu infection.

An area of particular focus for Wherry is the normal decline of the immune system with age, and his insights into this problem will be reflected in the design of the Wistar universal flu vaccine. The elderly are less able to fight off infections of all kinds, and they respond poorly to vaccines compared to younger individuals. Early findings from Wherry's laboratory indicate that specific immune-system genes become inactivated in the elderly. The flu vaccine Wherry and his colleagues are developing would incorporate tactics for reactivating these genes.

Wherry arrived at The Wistar Institute in 2004 after a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University, well known for its vaccine research, and his independent research program at Wistar has met with early success and support. His first proposal to the National Institutes of Health received a high score and full funding, unusual in the current federal funding climate. Also, in 2006 he won a prestigious New Scholar Award in Aging from The Ellison Medical Foundation.

Click here to read the Smithsonian profile of E. John Wherry, Ph.D.:

Click here to read the Wistar news release announcing Commonwealth of Pennsylvania support for the universal flu vaccine project:


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