While Montana has a long tradition of producing leaders in the life sciences, perhaps no one’s work has made a more significant economic contribution to our state than that of Edgar Ribi. His discoveries and work have directly led to the establishment of the GlasxoSmithKline (GSK) presence in Hamilton.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1920, Dr. Ribi and his family immigrated to the United States where he eventually headed the biophysics section and became Acting Chief at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, MT.
Ribi was interested in applying chemical technologies to the study of immunology and discovered a cure for a type of bovine and equine cancer. At the time, it was known that certain kinds of bacteria act as adjuvants, meaning they stimulate the body’s immune responses. Ribi used his chemical background to dissect the bacteria and reassemble its components into nonharmful adjuvants.
Unable to get his research funded and wanting to find commercial applications for his work, Ribi founded Ribi ImmunoChem Research in 1981, which became a leading biochemical research company. The company worked on anti-cancer agents, anti-infectious agents, and super vaccines. Some of the products it developed were Ribigen (an anti-tumor agent used in cattle), Detox (a human anti-cancer agent), and Ovamid (an anti-tumor agent intended for treating ovarian and cervical cancers).
Gary Christianson, a former site director at GSK, noted that Ribi’s research, in its most basic form, was at RML where he was really studying the immune system. He discovered a method to detoxify endotoxin, which is now the key adjuvant (immunobooster) component in many of GSK’s vaccines (including their HPV vaccine) and the reason Corixa bought Ribi and GSK bought Corixa.
Ribi died unexpectedly in 1986 at the age of 66. His company, ImmunoChem, was acquired by Corixa Corporation in 1999 and by GSK in 2005. But his work and legacy continue stronger than ever in Hamilton, MT, a place that became home.
Dr. Ribi wrote about the story of going to Calgary in the early 1950s to pick up his U.S. immigration visas with a colleague.
“Re-entering the U.S. was not so easy and for some hours we were in No-Man’s Land. The customs officer needed more than just proof with documents. We had to name a person in the U.S. whom he knew and who knew us. This person turned out to be the Sheriff of Hamilton, Montana, and a telephone conversation between the two officials made it possible to happily enter the U.S. and Montana territory. For us, Montana became the permanent home and the U.S. the new home country.” – Dr. Edgar Ribi