The Wistar Institute Launches New Vaccine Center

The Wistar Institute Launches New Vaccine Center

May 30, 2007

(PHILADELPHIA – May 31, 2007) – The Wistar Institute today announced the establishment of the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center. Extending Wistar’s history of accomplishment in vaccine development, the new center will focus the Institute’s scientific strengths in immunology, virology, and other research disciplines on creating new or improved vaccines against some of the most dangerous and widespread diseases in the world: HIV, influenza, rabies, hepatitis C, malaria, and others.

Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the country, The Wistar Institute today is an international leader in biomedical research with several important vaccines to its credit, including the standard-of-care protections against rubella, rabies, and rotavirus.

The founding director of The Wistar Institute Vaccine Center is Hildegund C.J. Ertl, M.D., professor and Immunology Program leader at Wistar. Ertl is overseeing major projects to develop new or improved vaccines against HIV, influenza, rabies, and human papillomavirus. She is also a collaborating investigator on an international project to create a vaccine against malaria.

“The new vaccines we are working to develop have important implications for public health because they can reduce disease and death from very common infections,” says Ertl, who has 20 years’ experience in vaccine research. “We also want to make more accessible the existing vaccines that are widely used in the United States and Europe but are less available in developing areas such as Africa and Asia.”

“Science offers us the ability to deliver a whole wave of new life-saving vaccines in coming years,” says Wistar president and CEO Russel E. Kaufman, M.D. “With its history of success in vaccine development, Wistar is poised to make vital contributions to this exciting and critically important area of medicine.”

Vaccines may be the greatest public health success story of all time, but that story remains unfinished. There are many infectious diseases for which no vaccine exists and others for which current vaccines could be more effective. Through the Vaccine Center, Wistar scientists are responding to these needs by working to create vaccines for the following diseases:

  • HIV/AIDS:  Wistar researchers are developing a vaccine against HIV, a growing epidemic that has infected some 40 million people worldwide. The scientists are planning to pursue human clinical trials for a vaccine approach that has shown promise in animal studies.
  • Influenza: Institute scientists are working to create a universal influenza vaccine that is effective against all strains of the flu, including avian flu, reducing the need for annual vaccination programs and protecting against pandemics.
  • Rabies: Building on the success of existing Wistar rabies vaccines for humans and wildlife, Wistar scientists are pursuing an improved human rabies vaccine for developing countries, where the disease still takes the lives of thousands of children each year.
  • Cancer and autoimmune diseases: Wistar’s wide-ranging vaccine development program encompasses treatment vaccines against colorectal cancer, melanoma, and human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer. Institute scientists’ autoimmune expertise also informs their development of novel new therapies for autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Hepatitis C, malaria, and others: Wistar researchers are collaborating with scientists at leading institutions worldwide to develop vaccines for hepatitis C, malaria, and other potentially deadly diseases.


In addition to Ertl, the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center draws on the talents of several top researchers in Wistar’s Immunology Program who serve as founding faculty members:

  • Professor Andrew J. Caton, Ph.D., researches the mechanisms by which the immune system regulates its responses to infecting microbes and to the body’s own tissues and cells. He has extensive experience analyzing immune responses to influenza virus. His expertise in immunology will support his work on the development of a universal influenza vaccine, as well as other projects.
  • Professor Jan Erikson, Ph.D., spearheads efforts to better understand immune cell activation and regulation. Her lab has been studying the signals that guide immune cells down distinct developmental paths that result in short-term immunity or long-lasting responses and memory formation. Her detailed understanding of immune cells and their interaction will inform her work on the development of a universal influenza vaccine.
  • Professor Luis J. Montaner, D.V.M., D.Phil., works with HIV/AIDS patients in the Philadelphia area and in South Africa, researching novel treatments and strategies for understanding and strengthening the immune system’s response to HIV. His expertise will support the Vaccine Center’s development of vaccines for HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
  • Assistant professor E. John Wherry, III, Ph.D., focuses on the failure of immune system response in cases of chronic infection and in the elderly. His insights and experience in this area promise to contribute to the development of new and improved vaccines for conditions such as hepatitis C and influenza.


Reflecting the Institute’s outstanding reputation for vaccine research, the scientists have attracted strong support from federal and state agencies and private grant makers. Vaccine Center faculty members are supported by major funding, including a $10.1 million National Institutes of Health contract and a $4.2 million Pennsylvania Department of Health grant dedicated to the development of a universal influenza vaccine.

Vaccine Center faculty members maintain laboratories at The Wistar Institute, where they can collaborate easily and effectively. The Vaccine Center also will provide shared laboratory facilities at the Institute to support the work of all center researchers. These laboratories include viral vector and human immunology core facilities.

The center will benefit from the expertise of an external scientific advisory board made up of leading researchers and clinicians in immunology and vaccine development. Wistar professor emeritus Stanley A. Plotkin, M.D., will serve as board chair. A winner of the Sabin Foundation Medal, Plotkin created the rubella vaccine used in the United States and throughout the world. He also developed experimental vaccines against cytomegalovirus and polio and collaborated with former Wistar scientists Hilary Koprowski, M.D., and Tadeusz Wiktor, D.V.M., on a human vaccine against rabies and with Paul A. Offit, M.D., and H. Fred Clark, D.V.M., Ph.D., on another against rotavirus.

Vaccines developed or co-developed by scientists at The Wistar Institute include:

  • Rubella: The Wistar vaccine for rubella, also known as German measles, has eradicated this disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Rubella infections during pregnancy were once greatly feared as a cause of devastating birth defects, including deafness and blindness.
  • Rabies: Two vaccines for rabies developed at the Institute prevent this disease in humans and wildlife. Wistar’s human rabies vaccine is a critical component of the treatment of choice for protecting people from rabies in the developed world. As long as the vaccine is given promptly as part of post-exposure treatment, it is nearly 100 percent effective in preventing the fatal infection.
  • Rotavirus: A new vaccine against rotavirus co-developed at Wistar became part of the recommended vaccine schedule for all U.S. babies in 2006. Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe dehydration disease in infants and young children. Rotavirus infections are responsible for tens of thousands of hospitalizations of U.S. children annually and an estimated 600,000 childhood deaths worldwide each year.
  • Cytomegalovirus: Wistar researchers have developed a prototype vaccine to protect against this widespread infection, which can cause severe disabilities in infants. Wistar is now seeking a commercial partner to further develop this vaccine for the clinic.

More information on the Wistar Institute Vaccine Center is available at

The Wistar Institute is an international leader in biomedical research, with special expertise in cancer research and vaccine development. Founded in 1892 as the first independent nonprofit biomedical research institute in the country, Wistar has long held the prestigious Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute. In addition to developing several important vaccines, Wistar scientists have identified many cancer genes and developed monoclonal antibodies and other valuable research tools. Today, Wistar is home to eminent cancer researchers and pioneering scientists working on experimental vaccines against the world’s deadliest diseases. The Institute works actively to transfer its inventions to the commercial sector to ensure that research advances move from the laboratory to the clinic as quickly as possible.

The Wistar Institute: Today’s Discoveries – Tomorrow’s Cures. On the web at