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Slovak-born scientist gets major award

SLOVAK-born Ján Vilček was among 11 laureates to receive the 2011 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the most prestigious award for technological development in the US. The 79-year-old scientist received it, at a special ceremony held on February 1 at the White House, for his pioneering work on interferons and key contributions to the development of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.

SLOVAK-born Ján Vilček was among 11 laureates to receive the 2011 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the most prestigious award for technological development in the US. The 79-year-old scientist received it, at a special ceremony held on February 1 at the White House, for his pioneering work on interferons and key contributions to the development of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.

“I am happy and feel greatly honoured to receive this award,” said Vilček, as quoted in the official press release of the NYU Langone Medical Center. “I am grateful that my work in the field of interferon and cytokine research, done over the span of several decades, has been recognised in such an important way.”

Vilček has devoted his life to studying the immune system. His life and contributions to science were even highlighted in the opening speech of US President Barack Obama, who called him “a pioneer in the study of the immune system and the treatment of inflammatory diseases like arthritis”.

The scientist himself says that he is pleased with the benefits his discoveries have brought to several people who can now do ordinary things like study, work and participate in sports.
“I feel fantastic when someone sends me a letter or tells me personally that I have [made] a contribution to his normal life,” Vilček said in an interview with the Pravda daily.

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation was created by a statute in 1980 and is administered for the White House by the US Department of Commerce’s Patent and Trademark Office. By highlighting the national importance of technological innovation, the medal is also meant to inspire future generations of Americans to prepare for and pursue technical careers to keep America at the forefront of global technology and economic leadership, NYU Langone Medical Center stated in a press release.

Nominees are selected by a distinguished independent committee representing the private and public sectors.

Who is Ján Vilček?

Ján Vilček was born in 1933 in Bratislava to Jewish parents. During the Second World War his parents placed him in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, where he stayed between 1941 and 1943, in order to keep him safe. In 1944 Vilček’s father joined the Slovak National Uprising while he and his mother hid in the small village of Nitrianske Rudno, in western Slovakia, Pravda wrote.

After the war, Vilček studied at the Medical Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava, from where he graduated in 1957. He subsequently landed a job at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
In 1964 he and his wife Marica emigrated to Vienna, from where they departed to the United States. They settled in New York, Pravda wrote.

“As a student I fell in love with the work in the laboratory,” Vilček said in an interview with the Sme daily published in March 2010. “And I guessed that in terms of technical scope the US was the most appropriate.”

Vilček joined the NYU Langone Medical Center in 1965 as an assistant professor of microbiology. He devoted his entire career to the study of a group of natural regulators of the immune system called cytokines, and much of it to the study of a class of cytokines called interferons. He has made important contributions to the understanding of the nature of interferons that have helped in the development of their clinical applications, according to the NYU Langone Medical Center website.

He and his colleagues were the first to show that there are two distinct families of interferons: the alpha interferon is used to treat Hepatitis B and C, and the beta interferon is used to treat multiple sclerosis.

During the 1980s, Vilček and his team began studying a cytokine called TNF, which was not very well known at that time. They discovered that overproduction of TNF can contribute to the development of many diseases. Therefore they generated the monoclonal antibody and created a drug called Remicade. It was the first anti-TNF treatment approved for use in patients and the first TNF inhibitor to be approved in three different therapeutic areas: gastroenterology, rheumatology and dermatology. The success of the drug has spurred the development of other anti-TNF agents that are now being used to treat a variety of inflammatory conditions, including Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, and ulcerative colitis, the NYU Langone Medical Center website states.

During his work for the medical centre, Vilček and his wife donated more than $120 million from the proceeds of drugs he had helped develop to the NYU Langone Medical Center in 2005 to fund scholarships, research, and the new medical student residence hall at NYU School of Medicine.

“Their ongoing support is an outward display of their deep gratitude for the many opportunities the medical centre has provided Vilček as his intellectual home,” reads the NYU Langone Medical Center website.

Moreover, the couple also established The Vilcek Foundation in 2000 to “honour and publicise the enormous contributions immigrants have made to biomedical science and the arts in the United States”, according to the website. In 2010 Vilček received a Goodwill Envoy award, which is given to successful Slovaks who work abroad and in a unique way represent their homeland, from then foreign affairs minister Miroslav Lajčák, the SITA newswire reported.

“People like Ján [Vilček] obviously had enormous talent,” Obama said during the February 1 ceremony. “In some fundamental ways, they were destined to be on this stage. The minds they were born with, the drive they innately possess, the positive forces that shaped their lives were more powerful than the forces aligned against them.”

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