Ellen S. Vitetta Biography


Born c. 1942. Education: Connecticut College, B.A.; New York University, M.S., 1966, Ph.D., 1968.

Addresses: Home —6914 Pemberton Dr., Dallas, TX 75230-4260. Office —University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Cancer Immunobiology Center, 6000 Harry Hines Blvd., Dallas, TX 75235-5303.


University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center, professor of microbiology, 1976—, Immunology Graduate Program, chairperson, 1984-88; Medical Research Council, Cambridge, England, 1986; UT Southwestern Medical Center, Cancer Immunology Center, director, 1988—, Sheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair, 1989—.

Member: American Association of Immunologists (president), Natonal Academy of Sciences.

Awards: Taittinger Breast Cancer Research Award, Komen Foundation, 1983; NIH Merit Award, 1987—; Pierce Immunotoxin Award, 1988; Women's Excellence in Science Award, FASEB, 1991; Abbott Award, American Society of Microbiologists, 1992; Rosenthal Award, American Association of Cancer Research, 1995; Charlotte Friend Award, American Association of Cancer Research, 2002.


Castor beans are used to make castor oil. When the beans are boiled down they produce ricin, a highly toxic compound. It takes only a pin point to be lethal to humans. Since it is readily available, ricin can and has been used as a biochemical weapon. However, a team of researchers led by Dr. Ellen S. Vitetta have developed a vaccine. Vitetta, an immunologist, has also found other uses for the deadly toxin that could help in the battle against cancer.

Vitetta was born around 1942. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Connecticut College. She went on to receive her masters degree from New York University, where she also earned her Ph.D. in the late 1960s. In 1976, she became a professor in the microbiology department at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center. The invention of monoclonal antibody technology by Dr. George Kohler and Dr. Cesar Milstein in 1975 provided Vitetta with the focus of her mission. She told Ricki Lewis of the Scientist, "When I read their paper in 1975, a light bulb went off and I knew that targeted therapy using monoclonal antibodies was the way to go after many diseases, including cancer." It would be another eleven years before Vitetta would reach a turning point in her career.

In 1984 Vitetta became the chairperson for the Immunology Graduate Program at UT Southwestern and continued as a professor of microbiology. She served as the chair until 1988. In 1986 Vitetta took a leave of absence to work at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, which was headed by Milstein. While there she studied molecular engineering of antibodies and immunotoxins. Upon her return from England, she became the director of the Cancer Immunology Center as well as the Scheryle Simmons Patigian Distinguished Chair in Cancer Immunology at UT Southwestern.

The Cancer Immunology Center's focus was on developing immunotoxins and monoclonal antibodies to destroy cancer cells and AIDS. The center had a number of breakthroughs under Vitetta's leadership. In 1997 Vitetta and her team of scientists found that chemically altered monoclonal antibodies killed cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies are single-celled antibodies that have binding sites at the end of their two arms which could attach to cancer cells and signal them to die. The scientists combined two of the antibodies to form a dimer that had four binding sites. This would increase the effectiveness of the antibodies in destroying the cancer cells. The new dimers were used to treat patients with lymphoma or breast cancer.

In the fight against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, highly active antiretroviral therapy was used to control the virus. In most cases, when the therapy stopped, the virus reappeared. Vitetta and her team focused on removing the dormant HIV cells. According to a press release from UT Southwestern, the scientists "joined a monoclonal antibody—an antibody made up of a protein from a single clone of cells—and a subunit of a plant toxin, ricin" to form an immunotoxin. The immunotoxin would target the dormant HIV cells and kill them. The immunotoxin also provided a bonus according to Vitetta. She stated in the press release, "In additional experiments we found that this immunotoxin could kill both latent cells and those actively cranking out the virus." The scientists used patients' cells that were grown in lab dishes. The next step is to use actual patients. Vitetta also began a study to see if immunotoxins could be used to kill cancer cells. Human trials have shown that 60 percent of the patients using the immunotoxins received partial or complete tumor reduction.

While using the immunotoxin, Vitetta and her team of scientists developed a vaccine for ricin. The vaccine named RiVax has been approved for trials on humans. According to a press release from UT Southwestern, ricin "can be administered in foods and water or sprayed as an aerosol." Victims develop fever, nausea, and abdominal pain or lung damage. The Centers for Disease Control classifies ricin as a "Category B" biological agent. The RiVax vaccine was injected into mice and the mice were given lethal doses of ricin. The mice were protected with no side effects. The trials will also be used to confirm the safety of the doses needed to induce effective antibodies in humans. DOR BioPharma, Inc. received the exclusive license to produce the vaccine.

In addition to their work with vaccines and immunotoxins, Vitetta and her team have developed a blood test that could detect genetic changes in breast cancer. In the advanced stages of breast cancer, cancer can spread to different parts of the body. The scientists have learned that circulatory cancer cells are shed from a primary tumor. The blood test was designed to detect the cancer cells. With detection, treatments can be tailor-made to slow the spread.

In addition to her groundbreaking discoveries, Vitetta is the president of the American Association of Immunologists. She is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She has received two awards from the American Association of Cancer Research: the Rosenthal Award in 1995, and the Charlotte Friend Award in 2002.

Vitetta credited her success with assembling a topnotch team; keeping the lab fully stocked—yet cost-effective—and keeping competition to a minimum. In addition to being an effective manager, she has also helped her team and the Cancer Immunology Center receive numerous grants to help further their studies. She also mentors, and was honored by 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine winner Dr. Linda Buck, who publicly and privately thanked her for helping her throughout her career. Vitetta is a tireless activist for getting more women involved with science. She told Sue Goetnick Ambrose of the Dallas Morning News, "Quite honestly, I think that men have skills, and I think women have skills, and the challenge is to harness your skills and use them to achieve what you wish to achieve rather than putting us into boxes." She also stated to Ambrose that she believes that "women bring certain skills and personalities to science that are very valuable. They tend often to have very good skills with people, with trainees, and I think you lose that if you have a totally male population of scientists."

Vitetta has also shown herself to be an excellent teacher who uses humor and plain English to help students understand the complexities of science. She told Ann Gibbons in Science that the high point of her career occurred in 1994 when 55 of her former students and postdoctoral researchers attended a barbecue to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her lab. In fact, the majority of researchers and students that have worked in her lab have continued their careers in science.

Vitetta has shown the tenacity to carry on with her research that has proven successful in eradicating several diseases. Her research has helped in the fight against biochemical warfare. No doubt she and her team will continue to make more scientific breakthroughs.



Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2004.


Dallas Morning News, February 9, 2004; January 29, 2005.

Science, September 23, 1994, pp. 1937-38.

Scientist, June 24, 2002, p. 52.


"The Birth, Death and Rebirth of a Novel Disease-Fighting Tool," Illyria (Balkans) Forum, http://pub18.ezboard.com/fbalkansfrm73?page=2 (April 11, 2005).

"Chemically Altered Monoclonal Antibodies Kill Cancer Cells," Doctor's Guide, http://www.pslgroup.com/dg/2E70E.htm (April 11, 2005).

"Ellen Vitetta, PhD," UT Southwestern Medical Center, http://www8.utsouthwestern.edu/findfac/professional/0,2356,17609,00.html (April 11, 2005).

"UT Southwestern researchers kill latent HIV-infected cells using immunotoxin," EurekAlert! Public News List, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/1999-10/UoTS-USrk-141099.php (June 22, 2005).

"What is ricin?" CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/01/07/ricin.facts (May 22, 2005).

Additional information was obtained from press releases from Texas Tech University.

—Ashyia N. Henderson

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