Alumnus is Saving Lives One Drug and Vaccine at a Time

For more than 30 years, Emilio Emini ’75 has worked for the world's leading pharmaceutical makers to produce ground-breaking medicines that have helped countless patients around the globe.

When Emilio Emini ’75, Ph.D., first started his freshman year at Manhattan College, he was anticipating a future career as a high school science teacher. 

A few semesters later, his strong interest in science research led to a change of majors (from education to biology) for this alumnus who would one day help transform the lives of many by developing lifesaving drugs and vaccines.

During his senior year at Manhattan, Emini was accepted into a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship. After graduation, with his fascination in medical microbiology, he headed to Cornell University’s Graduate School of Medical Sciences to pursue a doctorate degree with his tuition, laboratory and living expenses supported by the fellowship. It was at Cornell that Emini was first exposed to the wonders of molecular biology, a technology in its infancy at the time.

Motivated by his experiences at Cornell and armed with his doctorate, Emini had the opportunity in 1980 to join the laboratory of Professor Eckard Wimmer, a well-known and respected virologist studying polioviruses at Stonybrook University.

“The early 1980s were a unique time in biomedical research because that was the time that ultimately became known as when the molecular biology revolution got started,” Emini adds. “The concept of cloning, making genetic alterations, the availability of monoclonal antibodies — all of those things really came to the forefront in the late ’70s and early 1980s.”

From Manhattan to Merck

After spending three years studying the molecular basis of the polio vaccine, a new head of research at The Merck Research Laboratories, part of Merck & Co., hired Emini as an entry-level scientist. The new head had a vision for Merck to build out the vaccine research base by bringing in young research scientists who had newly acquired molecular biology experience.

Little did Emini know, he would spend the next 22 years of his career making history with Merck starting with the projects focused on the development of novel vaccines.

Little did Emini know, he would spend the next 22 years of his career making history with Merck starting with the projects focused on the development of novel vaccines, including a vaccine for Hepatitis B, the first vaccine produced entirely through molecular techniques. With the eruption of AIDS and HIV in the 1980s, Merck decided to use its research capabilities to combat the horrible epidemic, and Emini was at the forefront of this exploration.

“I started working on HIV back in 1988 both in vaccines and in the anti-viral therapeutic area. As time progressed, I increased my focus in the anti-viral therapeutic area,” Emini says. He spent the next eight to nine years working on the development of HIV chemotherapeutic agents and facilitated the development of some of the first drugs to treat HIV, including Indinavir and Efavirenz. Emini also was involved in the development of the Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy concept.

He was promoted to head of vaccine research in 1996 at Merck and spent the next eight years leading a research department that developed a number of vaccines, including vaccines to prevent human papillomavirus and rotavirus infections. 

Vaccine Research and Development

In 2004, Emini left the pharmaceutical industry and took a position with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, a global not-for-profit organization. “I essentially wanted to see what the outside world was like,” he says.

Emini enjoyed his experience with the organization but a chance to lead vaccine research and development at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals crossed his desk in late 2005, and he jumped at the chance. The development of vaccines is Emini’s passion, and he was given the opportunity to join an expanding venture to develop a second-generation version of Wyeth’s Prevnar vaccine, which prevents pneumonia.

Seven years later, Emini has accomplished a great deal as senior vice president and chief scientific officer of vaccine research at Pfizer, Inc., which acquired Wyeth a couple of years ago. Prevnar 13 was approved in 2010 for use in infants and young children, and as Emini says, “the impact has already been substantial.”

Recently, Prevnar 13 was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency for use in adults aged 50 and older.

In addition to his work with Prevnar 13, Emini’s team has built up Pfizer’s vaccine R&D portfolio. Pfizer is currently in clinical studies with novel vaccines designed to help prevent meningococcal group B disease, as well as staphylococcal infections. Emini’s team is also studying a series of therapeutic vaccine candidates targeted at modifying various human diseases.

With his recent work at Pfizer and past work at Merck, Emini’s 30-year career in the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in the successful development of a number of drugs and vaccines, in many ways thanks to his change in majors while at Manhattan.