Rutgers professor reflects on contributions to medicine, agriculture

By Dan Corey

More than 40 years after cracking the genetic code, Rutgers microbiologist Joachim Messing does not regret his decision to help save lives and not cash in. Messing, director of the Rutgers Waksman Institute of Microbiology, has entered his 31st year at the University after setting the foundation for creating synthetic human proteins, such as insulin, along with reducing world hunger with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The same biotechnology associated with Messing’s research — shotgun DNA sequencing and plant GMOs also proved to be helpful for creating synthetic proteins for medical purposes, such as interferon for leukemia and blood protein for cancer patients, Messing said. The tools and methods Messing created allowed humans to get human insulin for the first time, he said. Shotgun DNA sequencing also made it easier to create erythropoietin, a rare protein that is used for cancer patients to restore white blood cells after they are killed off during chemotherapy, Messing said.

By not patenting his research and making it freely available to the agricultural and medical industries, Messing chopped about five years off the development time for genetic engineering, saving thousands of lives as a result, he said. “I enjoy seeing that I can help people. It’s very (satisfying) to know that many people I’ve never seen — that I will never see — are well off because of what I did,” he said. “What could be more gratifying?”

Messing continues to work at Rutgers because he wants teach the next generation to do a better job than he did. The most important role that educators play is training students to have independent minds, Messing said. It is important for professors to have the courage to tell students the truth, as harsh as it may sound. “There are small increments that everyone can make,” he said. “It’s not that you have to have such a large impact, or so much luck as I have had. But you can still try to make a small difference.”


Full story online at The Daily Targum