Inventors from Md. get awards, recognition

Federal workers

September 21, 2007|By Melissa Harris

Dr. Douglas Lowy of Bethesda and John Schiller of Kensington invented a vaccine to thwart HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease in America and the leading cause of cervical cancer. Their work is saving thousands of women's lives annually, but their role in discovering the vaccine is not and might never be well-known.

Lowy and Schiller are federal employees, inventors on government-owned patents that have been licensed to drug companies for the testing and sale of the vaccine. Thus, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline - and not Lowy and Schiller - are the public faces of the nation's battle against HPV and cervical cancer.

But this week, the National Institutes of Health researchers got their due when the Partnership for Public Service named them the 2007 Federal Employees of the Year during a ceremony at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium near the National Mall in Washington.

Dressed in the required attire for the event - tuxedos - Lowy, 65, and Schiller, 54, accepted the award from Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt and thanked the drug companies for their "tireless effort in bringing the vaccine to the market," and humbly told the audience of more than 500 people that they never expected the attention.

"I never dreamed we'd be selected for this honor," Lowy said.

After earning his doctorate at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1983, Schiller, a microbiologist, accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at NIH because his professors had spoken highly of Lowy, calling him a "a good young investigator and a good person to work for."

Lowy had just started the Laboratory of Cellular Oncology at the National Cancer Institute, and both scientists had an interest in studying papillomaviruses. HPV stands for the human papillomavirus.

The two transitioned from studying what causes the virus to working on a way to stop it without asking for anyone's approval or anyone's money. Both said that the private sector would not have afforded them such freedom.

"We have retrospective reviews of our work every four years," Schiller said. "We don't have to justify it ahead of time."

Lowy said, "They trust us to work on important issues. And if we haven't, then they say goodbye."

Schiller said he is proud that his 13-year-old daughter will get the vaccine in a few weeks. "We started working on the vaccine at about the time she was born," he said.

Schiller said he plans to take a picture of his daughter receiving the shot.

Three other Maryland residents won Service to America Medals at the Wednesday night ceremony:

National Security Medal: Anh Duong.

Duong and her team of nearly 100 federal scientists and engineers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head invented a bomb in 67 days.

The blast from the thermobaric, or vacuum, bomb maintains its energy over a longer time and distance, enabling it to kill people hunkered deep underground.

Her work is a significant reason that few U.S. soldiers died in hand-to-hand combat inside the Taliban's vast network of caves and tunnels in Afghanistan.

"Not only did she help us win the war, but we avoided the loss of many lives had we had to clear caves in a more traditional manner," said Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter, who presented Duong with the award.

Known as "the bomb lady" by her colleagues at the Pentagon, Duong, 47, has led the development of 10 high-performing explosives used in 18 weapons, an unprecedented number, according to the Partnership for Public Service. But how she came to Maryland is also noteworthy.

She escaped Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1975, hours before the city fell to the North Vietnamese. Her grandfather had been a member of the emperor's court, and her father was general counsel to Vietnam's national bank. But at the moment of her escape, the most important man in her family was her older brother, a lieutenant and helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese air force.

He rescued the family, taking nearly 50 relatives into his chopper and flying them to an aircraft carrier, Duong said. On the way, because of wind shear and the large number of passengers, the family had to throw their belongings into the ocean. Duong, the youngest person on board, cried during the entire journey, refusing to give up her small bag filled with photos of her family, cat and dog.

After the family arrived in a refugee camp in the Philippines, they obtained asylum in the United States and moved to Maryland. The brother who rescued the family also lives here.

At Wednesday's ceremony, Duong of Laurel dedicated her award to "the 58,000 names on the wall of the Vietnam War memorial and the 260,000 Vietnamese who died in order for people like me to earn a second chance at freedom."

She received a standing ovation.

Backstage, she said that she rarely saw her husband, four children and dying parents during the 67 days she worked on the thermobaric bomb. Her parents died in April 2002 and August 2002, a few months after the new bomb was dropped.

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