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EU Influenza Research  

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
Technologiepark 927
B-9052 Ghent (Zwijnaarde) Belgium
Tel: +32 9 33 13 600
Fax: +32 9 33 13 609