By Colleen Carow and Jennifer Krisch
Ohio University and the National Academy of Engineering announced Monday that Elmer L. Gaden Jr., of Charlottesville, Va., has won the 2009 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize. Long considered the "father of biochemical engineering," Gaden is being recognized for his pioneering research that enabled the large-scale manufacture of antibiotics, such as penicillin.
The Russ Prize is awarded biennially to a researcher whose achievements are of critical importance in advancing science and engineering, ultimately improving the human condition.
"Through their endowment of this world-renowned prize, Fritz and Dolores Russ have established an inspiring legacy to recognize achievements that elevate humanity," said Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis. "It is an honor for Ohio University to be a part of their extraordinary legacy to foster life-changing engineering research and advances across the globe."
Russ College of Engineering and Technology Dean Dennis Irwin said the Russ contribution and support of the engineering field is immeasurable -- to the university and to the world.
"The magnitude of the Russes' commitment to engineering is humbling, and their vision was extraordinary. The Russ Prize is part of their great legacy," he said.
Administered by the academy, the prize was established in 1999 with a multimillion-dollar endowment to Ohio University from the Russes. The Russ Prize honors recipients with a $500,000 cash award and a gold medallion, which will be presented to Gaden during a gala dinner Feb. 17 in Washington, D.C. McDavis and Irwin will join with the academy in the presentation of the award.
"Dr. Gaden's groundbreaking application of engineering methodologies to the problems of mass-production of drugs has undoubtedly saved many lives and improved those of many others," Irwin said.
Gaden's research began more than 50 years ago while he was a student at Columbia University, working toward his doctorate. During this postwar period, antibiotics were becoming increasingly in demand, particularly penicillin, which had been successfully used to treat battlefield injuries.
Drug companies were looking for methods of quickly growing mass quantities of the mold-derived drug. Chemical engineers began experimenting with a mechanical process of microbial fermentation -- used primarily to produce yeast for food.
Gaden, building on a lifelong interest in biology and medicine, instead decided to focus on accelerating the yeast's growth. Through the engineering concept of mass transfer -- in this case, the movement of molecules and atoms through the yeast cells while in a fluid -- he then introduced oxygen to the yeast. The process provides more fermentation energy that enables yeast to grow and multiply more rapidly, thereby providing the method of large-scale antibiotics manufacturing.
"The greatest single contribution of modern biotechnology to the advancement of human health has been the global availability of antibiotics," said Jerome Schultz, professor and chair of bioengineering at the University of California Riverside.
The accomplishment, in fact, launched a new field.
"Gaden successfully melded engineering with biology, thereby forming the new scientific specialty, bioengineering" said Boyd Woodruff, former executive director of biological science for the Merck Research Laboratories. "He has been the creative leader of the field throughout his career."
During his illustrious career, Gaden also established the international research journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, the first of its kind and now recognized as the leading journal worldwide for the profession. He served as its editor for 25 years. After his retirement, the publication established the Gaden Award in his honor, which recognizes the most outstanding paper of the year.
Gaden's work has had a global impact, changing medical practices in nearly every country by the availability of penicillin and antibiotics. His methods remain commonplace today and are still applied to produce numerous drugs, including insulin and interferon. Today the antibiotic market is estimated at more than $25 billion worldwide.
"As the current editor-in-chief of Biotechnology and Bioengineering, I see first-hand what a profound impact Dr. Gaden has had on bioengineering throughout the world through ... the journal. It is yet another enduring achievement and important element of Dr. Gaden's legacy to biotechnology," said Douglas S. Clark, executive associate dean of chemical engineering at University of California, Berkeley.
Other than a brief stint at the drug company Pfizer, Gaden spent his entire career teaching and collaborating in academia, first at Columbia then in teaching and administrative appointments at the University of Vermont and the University of Virginia, from which he retired in 1994.
Gaden's dedication to his students has paid endless dividends. They have become education and industry leaders in biotechnology and bioengineering.
"I'm happy as long as I'm addressing myself to a real need," Gaden said in a Chemical and Engineering News article. "That can be real enrichment of the soul."
Previous Russ Prize recipients are Yuan-Cheng "Bert" Fung (2007), the father of biomechanical engineering; Leland C. Clark Jr. (2005), inventor of biosensors; Willem J. Kolff (2003), the father of artificial organs; and Earl E. Bakken and Wilson Greatbatch (2001), inventors of the heart pacemaker.