Dr. Peter Palese Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

Peter Palese, Ph.D., Professor and Chairman of the Department of Microbiology of Icahn School of Medicine, was elected to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in recognition of his distinguished and continuing achievements in research.

Dr. Palese has made landmark contributions that have significantly advanced understanding of and ability to combat viruses. Election to the National Academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist. He joins an eminent group of 1,843 scientists and engineers who are members of the National Academy, including 60 who were elected in 2000.

Dr. Palese is an international leader in the study of viruses that cause respiratory disease in humans. His emphasis has been on viruses that use RNA rather than DNA as their genetic material. This group includes influenza, corona and parainfluenza viruses. His research to understand the structure and function of these viruses, how they interact with host cells and how they reproduce, has led and continues to lead to the development of antiviral compounds and vaccines.

A major achievement of his was the establishment of the genetic maps for influenza A, B, and C viruses. These maps allowed researchers for the first time to investigate which viral genes code for which proteins. In addition, they made possible the study — on a molecular level — of the contribution of specific influenza virus genes to the virulence of the virus. The methods he and his colleagues developed for mapping the genetic material of RNA viruses have subsequently been used by other investigators to study other RNA viruses, including reo- and rotaviruses.

Dr. Palese also developed the first method to genetically manipulate negative-strand RNA viruses. Thus for the first time researchers could change these viruses both for research to determine the function of genes and for the development of viral strains for use as vaccines. Efforts are underway in Dr. Palese's laboratory and in many others to use and further develop this technique for influenza and other viruses, including measles, respiratory syncytial and parainfluenza viruses. The work Dr. Palese has done on the mechanisms of replication of influenza viruses has revealed potential targets for antiviral compounds that would block reproduction and therefore destroy the virus. His discoveries in this area laid the foundation for research that eventually led to production of antivirals that were recently approved by the FDA. Today, in collaboration with colleagues at Icahn School of Medicine, Dr. Palese's research focuses on the development of novel vaccines against influenza and other respiratory viruses that are made from genetically engineered viruses. It is expected that such vaccines will offer improved protection and longer lasting immunity. He is also investigating how respiratory viruses interact with the host cell. The ultimate goal of this research is the development of new antiviral compounds.

Dr. Palese has served as Chair of the Department of Microbiology at Icahn School of Medicine since 1987. The Department has a thriving research program with numerous ongoing studies of both RNA and DNA containing viruses with special emphasis on herpes and influenza viruses. Other investigators in the Department are revealing the mechanisms of immune response to pathogens and investigating oncogenes to discover how they make cells cancerous.