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Remembering Hep B Vaccine Inventor, Nobel Laureate, and Friend

P&S alum Baruch Blumberg set a new standard for excellence
April 18, 2011

 A P&S graduate whose love of travel led to his invention of the hepatitis B vaccine, and a Nobel prize, Baruch Blumberg died of an apparent heart attack on April 5, after giving a speech at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Though Baruch Blumberg is best known for the vaccine, which has saved millions of lives, his vast intellect encompassed the history of science, folk medicine, the origin and evolution of life, and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. He also made time for weekly Talmud discussion classes.

Blumberg was born in New York City in 1925. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Union College, and after one year of graduate studies in mathematics at Columbia University, switched to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. While in medical school, he spent several months in Surinam, where he delivered babies, did other clinical work, and conduced public health surveys, including the first malaria study in that region. He was struck by the variation in responses to infection among the various populations.

After an internship and residency at Columbia, Blumberg went to Oxford for a PhD in biochemistry. He worked at the NIH from 1957 to 1964, and in 1964 he established a program in clinical research at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia. He also taught medicine and medical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

While at Fox Chase, Blumberg continued to travel the world, collecting blood samples. One sample, from a supposedly healthy Australian Aborigine, caused antibodies to form in the blood of a New York hemophilia patient. Research showed that the “Australian antigen,” as it came to be known, was far more common in Africa, Asia, and Micronesia than in the United States. Further study showed that the antigen was a surface protein from the hepatitis B virus. For his discovery of the Australian antigen, Blumberg received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; he shared it with D. Carleton Gajdusek, who discovered the cause of the “trembling disease,” kuru.

Blumberg and colleagues invented the vaccine for hepatitis B in 1969, but it wasn’t until 1981 that it was developed by Merck from the blood of hepatitis B patients and licensed by the FDA. (Blumberg liked to say that vaccines aren’t as lucrative as medications for chronic illnesses.) Because hepatitis B causes liver cancer, it is considered the first cancer vaccine. In 1986, the FDA licensed another Merck vaccine, made from yeast cells, which is still in use. Another result of Blumberg’s work was the testing of donor blood by hospitals, which virtually eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in the US and many other countries.

In the late 1980s, ready for new adventures, Blumberg turned to studying the medicinal properties of plants used by indigenous populations (which had the added benefit of requiring collecting trips). In 1999, he became founding director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI), whose goal is to study “the origin, distribution, evolution, and future of life on earth and in the Universe.” Blumberg relished the interdisciplinary nature of this mission, which covered cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, and other fields. He also thought that space exploration should be combined with the study of “extremophiles,” organisms that live under extreme conditions, such as the heat of hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.  He thought that such organisms might resemble early life forms.

In his Nobel autobiography, Blumberg says that in an introductory talk to NAI members, he told them that he “did not expect them to do exactly what they said they would do in their applications since, in a fast-moving field, observations made after the application had been written could greatly change the path of research. This was greeted with cheers.”

 

-- Ann Rae Jonas

Video courtesy of Stanford University

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