Dr Walter Fiers
Professor Emeritus University of Ghent
Walter Fiers was born in Ieper, Belgium in 1931. After obtaining
a degree of Engineer for Chemistry and Agricultural Industries at
the University of Ghent (1954), he started his research career as
an enzymologist in the laboratory of Laurent Vandendriessche in
Ghent. He then worked in Copenhagen before obtaining a fellowship
from the Rockefeller Foundation and joining molecular biologist
Bob Sinsheimer's group at the California Institute of Technology
(CalTech) as a post-doc in 1960.
In Caltech, Dr. Fiers was exposed to the new science of Molecular
Biology and began studying viral DNA. He demonstrated the physical,
covalently closed circularity of Bacteriophage PhiX-174 genomic
DNA. In 1962, Dr. Fiers moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to work in
the laboratory of future Nobel laureate, Gobind Khorana.
At the end of 1962, Dr. Fiers set up the Laboratory of Molecular
Biology at the University of Ghent. His research involved Bacteriophage
MS2; he was the first to establish the complete nucleotide sequence
of a gene (1972) and of a viral genome (1976).
This research led to his participation in the development of a
new discipline that later evolved into "recombinant DNA technology."
This was possible as, on the one hand, he was familiar with the
manipulation of genetic material and, on the other hand, an understanding
had been reached as to how genetic information is expressed. The
development of totally new procedures and knowledge led to the ability
to clone almost any gene and to express these efficiently in bacteria
or in other heterologous hosts.
This approach allowed Dr. Fiers and his colleagues in 1980 to clone
and express the gene coding for human interferon-beta and, later,
of interleukin-2, interferon-gamma and TNF (Tumour Necrosis Factor).
These genes were also expressed efficiently, leading to production
in large amounts, which could then be used for basic studies as
well as for clinical testing. In fact, the first clinical trials
with interferon-gamma were carried out by Biogen Inc. with material
produced by means of Dr. Fiers' clone. Interferon-beta, also cloned
and expressed under contract with Biogen, was later successfully
developed as a treatment for multiple sclerosis.
Over the years, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of the University
of Ghent has grown to the size of about 160 collaborators. In 1997
Fiers retired and became Professor Emeritus, and the following year
he retired from his position as director of the Laboratory. However,
he has remained scientifically active, more particularly by directing
the influenza vaccine project. In 1999, he published a paper in
Nature Medicine on a universal vaccine against human influenza A
based on the external domain of the conserved protein M2. He is
now a partner of an EU-funded Influenza Vaccine project.
Dr. Walter Fiers
Department for Molecular Biomedical Research
Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (V.I.B.)
and Ghent University (UGent)
'Fiers-Schell-Van Montagu' building
B-9052 Ghent (Zwijnaarde) Belgium
Tel: +32 9 33 13 600
Fax: +32 9 33 13 609