Tag Archives: HBsAg

Baruch Blumberg: The Hepatitis B Virus and Vaccine

Hepatitis B virus (HBV), one of mankind’s most important pathogens, infects about 2 billion people worldwide, and more than 500 million individuals are life-long carriers of the virus; with most in Asia. HBV causes acute and chronic cirrhosis, as well as hepatocellular carcinoma. In point of fact, HBV is the 10th leading cause of death in the world! The serendipitous discovery of HBV, and the development of the first HBV vaccine, happened as follows. [See Note 1 for a brief review of the remarkable HBV replication strategy].

In the early 1940’s, during World War II, British doctor, F. O. MacCallum, was the first to suggest that an infectious agent might cause hepatitis. MacCallum was assigned to produce a yellow fever vaccine for British soldiers. That was how he happened to notice that soldiers tended to come down with hepatitis a few months after receiving the yellow fever vaccine.

It was fortunate that MacCallum also knew of hepatitis cases in children who received inoculations of serum from patients convalescing from measles and mumps (a means of protection against those viruses before vaccines were available), and of hepatitis cases in blood transfusion recipients, and of cases following treatments with unsterilized reused syringes.

To explain these coincidences, MacCallum hypothesized that hepatitis might be transmitted by a factor in human blood. And, since hepatitis could be transmitted by inoculation with serum that had been filtered, MacCallum proposed that the hepatitis factor might be a virus. [In 1947 MacCallum reported that hepatitis could be spread by food and water that had been contaminated with fecal material, as well as by blood. He coined the term hepatitis A for the form of the disease spread by food and water, and hepatitis B for the form transmitted via blood.] See Aside 1.

[Aside 1: The following episode, described in MacCallum’s own words (1), occurred in England during World War II: “One day in 1942, I received a message to go to Whitehall to see one of the senior medical advisers and when I arrived I was asked ‘What is this yellow fever vaccine and how dangerous is it?’ After explaining its constitution and the possibility of a mild reaction four to five days after inoculation, I was told that the Cabinet was at that moment debating whether or not Mr. Churchill should be allowed to go to Moscow, which he wished to do in a few days’ time. The yellow fever vaccine was theoretically essential before he could fly through the Middle East, but I explained that no antibody would be produced before seven to ten days so that there would be little point in giving the vaccine. It was finally decided that the vaccine would not be used, and the administrators would take care of the situation. Several months later I received an irate call from the Director of Medical Services of the RAF, who had been inoculated with the same batch of vaccine which would have been used for Mr. Churchill, and was informed that the D. G. had spent a very mouldy Christmas with hepatitis about 66 days after his inoculation…I will leave it to you to speculate on what might possibly have been the effect on the liver of our most famous statesman and our ultimate fate if  he had received the icterogenic vaccine.”]

With the advent of cell culture in the 1950s, researchers hoped that a hepatitis agent might soon be cultivated in vitro. Nonetheless, HBV was not discovered until 1966. What’s more, the discovery did not involve growing the virus in cell culture. And, reminiscent of the case of MacCallum above, the discovery was made by a researcher, Baruch S. Blumberg, who was not even working on hepatitis. Rather, Blumberg was interested in why individuals varied in their susceptibilities to various illnesses.

Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg
Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg

Blumberg sought to answer that question by identifying possibly relevant genetic differences between population groups, which, in the pre-molecular biology era, might be revealed by differences in their blood proteins. Thus, in the early 1950s, Blumberg, then working at the NIH, began collecting a panel of blood samples from diverse populations throughout the world.

Blumberg looked for serum protein variations (i.e., serum protein polymorphisms) by asking if sera from multiply-transfused individuals (defined by Blumberg as persons who received 25 units of blood or more) might contain antibodies that reacted with proteins in the serum samples of his panel. His rational, in his own words, was as follows: “We decided to test the hypothesis that patients who received large numbers of transfusions might develop antibodies against one or more of the polymorphic serum proteins (either known or unknown) which they themselves had not inherited, but which the blood donors had (2).” In other words, patients who received multiple transfusions were more likely than others to have antibodies against polymorphic serum proteins in donor blood, and those antibodies might also react with polymorphic serum proteins in the samples from his panel. See Aside 2.

[Aside 2: Blumberg used the Ouchterlony double-diffusion agar gel technique in these experiments. Serum samples to be tested against each other were placed in opposite wells of a gel. The proteins they contained could then diffuse through the gel. Antigen-antibody complexes that formed between the two samples appeared as white lines in the gel.]

Hemophilia and leukemia patients were well-represented in Blumberg’s collection of serum samples from multiply-transfused individuals. And, a serendipitous aspect of Blumberg’s experimental approach was that he used these samples to probe for serum protein polymorphisms in samples from geographically diverse populations. Thus it happened that Blumberg detected a cross-reaction between a New York hemophilia patient’s serum and a serum sample from an Australian aborigine. But what could these two individuals have had in common that might have triggered the cross-reaction?

His curiosity thus aroused, Blumberg and collaborator, Harvey Alter, of the NIH Blood Bank, tested the hemophilia patient’s serum against thousands of other serum samples. Blumberg and Alter may have been surprised to find that whatever the antigen in the Aborigine’s serum was that reacted with the hemophilia patient’s serum, reactivity against that antigen was common (one in ten) in leukemia patients, but rare (one in 1,000) in normal individuals. In any case, because the antigen was first identified in an Australian aborigine, it was termed the Australia antigen.

Bear in mind that Blumberg’s original purpose was to explain why individuals differed in their susceptibilities to various illnesses. Thus, Blumberg at first believed that he detected an inherited blood-protein that predisposes people to leukemia. However, additional experiments showed that the antigen was more common in older individuals than in younger ones; a finding more consistent with the possibility that the antigen might be associated with an infectious agent.

Blumberg’s first clue that the Australia antigen might be associated with hepatitis came to light when he tested serum samples from a 12-year old boy with Down syndrome. The first time that the boy was tested for the Australia antigen, he was negative. However, several months later, when retested, the boy was positive. Moreover, sometime during that interim, the boy also developed hepatitis.

Blumberg, and other researchers, carried out additional experiments, which confirmed that the Australia antigen indeed associated with hepatitis. In addition, the antigen was more frequently detected in hepatitis sufferers than in individuals with other liver diseases. Thus, the Australia antigen was a marker of hepatitis in particular and not of liver pathology in general. See Aside 3.

[Aside 3: Blumberg had a personal reason motivating him to identify the cause of hepatitis. His technician (later Dr. Barbara Werner) became ill with hepatitis, which she almost certainly acquired in the laboratory. Fortunately, she underwent a complete recovery.]

In 1970, British pathologist David Dane and colleagues at Middlesex Hospital in London, and K. E. Anderson and colleagues in New York, provided corroborating evidence  that hepatitis is an infectious disease. Using electron microscopy, they observed 42-nm “virus-like particles” in the sera of patients who were positive for the Australia antigen. In addition, they saw these same particles in liver cells of patients with hepatitis.

What then is the Australia antigen? Actually, it is the surface protein of the 42-nm HBV particles; now known as the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). Since HBV particles per se were described for the first time by David Dane, they are sometimes referred to as Dane particles.

Now we can explain Blumberg’s early finding, that individuals who received multiple transfusions (e.g., leukemia and hemophilia patients) were more likely than the general population to have antibodies against the Australia antigen. Those individuals were more likely than the general population to have received donated blood and, thus, were more likely to have been recipients of blood contaminated with HBV. At that time, a large percentage of the blood supply came from paid donors, at least some of whom were syringe-sharing, intravenous drug abusers and, consequently, more likely than most to be HBV carriers. In 1972 it became law in the United States that all donated blood be screened for HBV. See Note 2.

But it was important to protect all people from HBV; not just transfusion recipients. In 1968, Blumberg, now at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, and collaborator Irving Millman, hypothesized that HBsAg might provoke an immune response that would protect people against HBV and, consequently, that a vaccine could be made using HBsAg purified from the blood of HBV carriers. In Blumberg’s own words: “Irving Millman and I applied separation techniques for isolating and purifying the surface antigen and proposed using this material as a vaccine. To our knowledge, this was a unique approach to the production of a vaccine; that is, obtaining the immunizing antigen directly from the blood of human carriers of the virus (1).”  The Fox Chase Cancer Center filed a patent for the process in 1969.

Blumberg was willing to share his method and the patent with any pharmaceutical company willing to develop an HBV vaccine for widespread use. Nonetheless, the scientific establishment was somewhat slow to accept his experimental findings and his proposal for making the vaccine. Then, in 1971, Merck accepted a license from Fox Chase to develop the vaccine. In 1982, after more years of research and testing, Maurice Hillman (3) and colleagues at Merck turned out the first commercial HBV vaccine (“Heptavax”). Producing an HBV vaccine, without having to cultivate the virus in vitro, was considered one of the major medical achievements of the day. See Notes 3 and 4.

The consequences of Blumberg’s vaccine were immediate and striking. For instance, in China the rate of chronic HBV infection among children fell from 15% to around 1% in less than a decade. And, in the United States, and in many other countries, post-transfusion hepatitis B was nearly eradicated.

Moreover, Blumberg’s HBV vaccine was, in a real sense, the world’s first anti-cancer vaccine since it prevented HBV-induced hepatocellular carcinoma, which accounts for 80% of all liver cancer; the 9th leading cause of death. Jonathan Chernoff (the scientific director of the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where Blumberg spent most of his professional life) stated: “I think it’s fair to say that Barry (Blumberg) prevented more cancer deaths than any person who’s ever lived (4).”

In 1976 Blumberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases.” He shared the award with Carlton Gajdusek, who won his portion for discoveries regarding the epidemiology of kuru (5). See Note 5.

Blumberg claimed that saving lives was the whole point of his career. “This is what drew me to medicine. There is, in Jewish thought, this idea that if you save a single life, you save the whole world, and that affected me (7).” See Aside 4.

[Aside 4: Blumberg received his elementary school education at an orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn, and he attended weekly Talmud discussion classes until his death. Interestingly, Blumberg graduated from Far Rockaway High School in Queens, N.Y.; also the alma mater of fellow Nobel laureates, physicists Burton Richter and Richard Feynman.]

As we’ve seen, Blumberg’s landmark discovery of HBV sprang from a basic study of human genetic polymorphisms. In Blumberg’s own words, “… it is clear that I could not have planned the investigation at its beginning to find the cause of hepatitis B. This experience does not encourage an approach to basic research which is based exclusively on specific-goal-directed programs for the solution of biological problems (1).”

Saul Krugman (Note 4) had this to say about Blumberg’s discovery: “It is well known that Blumberg’s study that led to the discovery of Australia antigen was not designed to discover the causative agent of type B hepatitis. If he had included this objective in his grant application, the study section would have considered him either naïve or out of his mind. Yet the chance inclusion of one serum specimen from an Australian aborigine in a panel of 24 sera that was used in his study of polymorphisms in serum proteins…led to detection of an antigen that subsequently proved to be the hepatitis B surface antigen (1).” See Note 6.

In 1999, Blumberg’s scientific career took a rather curious turn when he accepted an appointment by NASA administrator, Dan Goldin, to head the NASA Astrobiology Institute. There, Blumberg helped to establish NASA’s search for extraterrestrial life. Blumberg also served on the board of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

Blumberg passed away on April 5, 2011, at 85 years of age.

Notes:

[Note 1:  HBV is the prototype virus for the hepadnavirus family, which displays the most remarkable, and perhaps bizarre, viral replication strategy known. In brief, in the cell nucleus, the cellular RNA polymerase II enzyme transcribes the hepadnavirus circular, double-stranded DNA genome, thereby generating several distinct species of viral RNA transcripts, all of which are exported to the cytoplasm. The largest of these viral transcripts is the pregenomic RNA; a transcript of the entire circular viral DNA genome, as well as an additional terminal redundant sequence. Remarkably, the pregenomic RNA is then packaged in nascent virus capsids, within which it is reverse transcribed by a virus-encoded reverse transcriptase activity, thereby becoming an encapsulated progeny hepadnavirus double-stranded DNA genome. Thus, reverse transcription is a crucial step in the replication cycle of the hepadnaviruses, as it is in the case of the retroviruses. But, while the retroviruses replicate their RNA genomes via a DNA intermediate, the hepadnaviruses replicate their DNA genomes via an RNA intermediate.]

[Note 2: The highly sensitive radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique, developed by Rosalyn Yallow and Solomon Berson, is the basis for the test that screens the blood supply for the Australia antigen. The story behind this assay is worthy of note here because it is yet another example of serendipity in the progress of science. In brief, Yallow and Berson sought to develop an assay to measure insulin levels in diabetics. Towards that end, they happened to find that radioactively-labeled insulin disappeared more slowly from the blood samples of people previously given an injection of insulin than from the blood samples of untreated patients. That observation led them to conclude that the treated patients had earlier generated an insulin-binding antibody. And, from that premise they hit upon the RIA procedure. Using their insulin test as an example, they would add increasing amounts of an unlabelled insulin sample to a known amount of antibody bound to radioactively labeled insulin. They would then measure the amount label displaced from the antibody, from which they could calculate the amount of unlabelled insulin in the test sample. Their procedure has since been applied to hundreds of other substances. RIA is simpler to carry out and also about 1,000-fold more sensitive than the double-diffusion agar gel procedure that Blumberg used to identify the Australia antigen. Yallow and Berson refused to patent their RIA procedure, despite its huge commercial value. Yallow received a share of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her role in its development. Berson, died in 1972 and did not share in the award.]

[Note 3: Making Heptavax directly from the blood of human HBV carriers was somewhat hindered because it required a continuing and uncertain supply of suitable donor blood. Moreover, there was concern that even after purifying the HBsAg, and treating it with formalin to inactivate any infectivity, the vaccine might yet contain other live dangerous viruses. Concern increased in the early 1980s with the emergence of HIV/AIDS, since much of the HBV-infected serum came from donors who later developed AIDS. Thus, in 1990 Heptavax was replaced in the United States by a safer genetically engineered (i.e., DNA recombinant) HBV vaccine, which contained no virus whatsoever. That vaccine was the first to be made using recombinant DNA technology. Moreover, it was yet another instance in which Hilleman played a key role in the development of a vaccine (3).]

[Note 4: In 1971, Saul Krugman, working at NYU, was actually the first researcher to make a “vaccine” against HBV. Krugman’s accomplishment began as a straightforward inquiry into whether heat (boiling) might kill HAV (see Note 5). Finding that it did, Krugman repeated his experiments; this time to determine whether boiling might likewise kill HBV in the serum of HBV carriers. As Krugman expected, boiling indeed destroyed HBV infectivity. But, to his surprise, while the heated serum was no longer infectious, it did induce incomplete, but statistically significant protection against challenge with live HBV. Krugman considers his “vaccine” discovery, like Blumberg’s discovery of HBV, to have resulted from “pure serendipity” (1).

Krugman could not answer whether HBsAg per se in his crude vaccine induced immunity. However, Hilleman, in 1975, using purified HBsAg, as per Blumberg’s concept, showed that HBsAg indeed induced immunity against an intravenous challenge with HBV.

Krugman also carried out key studies on the epidemiology of hepatitis, demonstrating that “infectious” (type A) hepatitis is transmitted by the fecal-oral route, while the more serious “serum” (type B) hepatitis is transmitted by blood and sexual contact.

Krugman reputation was somewhat tarnished because he used institutionalized disabled children as test subjects in the experiments that led to his vaccine. While that practice astonishes us today, it was not unheard-of in the day. In any event, it did not prevent Krugman’s election in 1972 as president of the American Pediatric Society, or his 1983 Lasker Public Service Award.]

[Note 5: Gajdusek’s reputation was later sullied when he was convicted of child molestation (5).]

[Note 6: In 1973 and 1974, research groups led by Stephen Feinstone and Maurice Hilleman (3) discovered hepatitis A virus (HAV), a picornavirus.

After the discoveries of HAV and HBV, it became clear that blood samples cleared of HAV and HBV could still transmit hepatitis. In 1983 Mikhail Balayan identified a virus, now known a hepatitis E virus (the prototype of a new family of RNA viruses), as the cause of a non-A, non-B infectious hepatitis (6).

In 1989, a mysterious non-A, non-B hepatitis agent, now known as hepatitis C virus (a flavivirus), was identified by a team of molecular biologists using the cutting-edge molecular biology techniques of the day (8).]

References:

  1. Krugman, S. 1976. Viral Hepatitis: Overview and Historical Perspectives. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 49:199-203.
  1. Blumberg, B, Australia Antigen and the Biology of Hepatitis B, Nobel Lecture, December 13, 1976.
  1. Maurice Hilleman: Unsung Giant of Vaccinology, Posted on the blog April 24, 20143.
  1. Emma Brown (6 April 2011). “Nobelist Baruch Blumberg, who discovered hepatitis B, dies at 85”. The Washington Post.
  1. Carlton Gajdusek, Kuru, and Cannibalism, Posted on the blog April 6, 2015.
  1. Mikhail Balayan and the Bizarre Discovery of Hepatitis E Virus, Posted on the blog May 3, 2016.
  1. Segelken, H. Roger (6 April 2011). “Baruch Blumberg, Who Discovered and Tackled Hepatitis B, Dies at 85”. New York Times.
  1. Choo, Q. L., G. Kuo, A.J. Weiner, L.R. Overby, D.W. Bradley, and M. Houghton. 1989. Isolation of a cDNA clone derived from non-A, non-B viral hepatitis genome. Science 244:359-362.

 

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Maurice Hilleman: Unsung Giant of Vaccinology

In January 2005, more than 100 of the world’s most renowned biomedical researchers got together to pay tribute to the 85-year-old Maurice Hilleman. When it was Hilleman’s turn to address the gathering, he alluded to them as his “peers in the world of science.” Referring to Hilleman’s gracious comment, science journalist Alan Dove wrote: “By any objective measure, a gathering of Maurice Hilleman’s scientific peers would not fill a telephone booth.” (1)

Hilleman truly was a giant in the history of virology. But, if you have only a vague idea of who Hilleman was or of his achievements, you are not alone. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was present at the gathering, noted: “Very few people, even in the scientific community, are even remotely aware of the scope of what Maurice has contributed….I recently asked my post-docs whether they knew who had developed the measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and chickenpox vaccines. They had no idea,” Fauci said. “When I told them that it was Maurice Hilleman, they said, ‘Oh, you mean that grumpy guy who comes to all of the AIDS meetings?’”

hillemanMaurice R. Hilleman: The greatest vaccinologist.

Consider this. Hilleman developed nine of the 14 vaccines routinely recommended in current vaccine schedules. These are the vaccines for the measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and chickenpox viruses, and for meningococcal , pneumococcal, and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria. Moreover, he was the first to forecast the arrival of the 1957 Asian flu and, in response, led the development of a flu vaccine that may have saved hundreds of thousands or more lives worldwide (2). And, independently of Robert Huebner and Wallace Rowe, he discovered cold-producing adenoviruses, and developed an adenovirus vaccine. Overall, Hilleman invented nearly 40 vaccines. And, he was a discoverer of simian virus 40 (SV40). If the above accomplishments were not enough to ensure his fame, he also was the first researcher to purify interferon, and the first to demonstrate that its expression is induced by double-stranded RNA.

[Aside: I first became aware of Maurice Hilleman 44 years ago. It was in the context of his 1959 discovery of SV40, which I came across only because I was beginning my post-doctoral studies of the related murine polyomavirus. Bernice Eddy, at the U. S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), was probably the first to discover SV40, which she detected in early lots of the Salk polio vaccine (3). Hillman, then at Merck & Co, independently discovered the same virus in rhesus monkey kidney cell cultures, in which the polio vaccine was being produced. Hilleman gave SV40 its name. It was the 40th simian virus the Merck lab found in the monkey kidney cells. In 1961, both Eddy and Hilleman found that inoculating SV40 into hamsters causes tumors in the animals. Merck withdrew its polio vaccine from the market. But, by then, live SV40 had been unknowingly injected into hundreds of millions of people worldwide! More on this in a future posting.]

We begin our account of Hilleman’s achievements with his development of the mumps vaccine. In the days before the vaccine, mumps struck about 200,000 children in the United States, annually. Yet except in rare circumstances, the infection was mild, and was generally regarded as a childhood rite of passage. There is a sweetness to the story of the mumps vaccine that I hope you might enjoy.

The tale began at about 1:00 AM, on March 21, 1963, when 5-year-old Jeryl Lynn Hilleman ambled into her father’s bedroom complaining of a sore throat. Jeryl Lynn’s father felt his daughter’s swollen glands, and knew in a flash that it was mumps. And, while I suspect that many lay parents back in the day would also have recognized Jeryl Lynn’s symptoms, few would have done what her father did after first comforting his daughter. Although it was already past midnight, Maurice hopped into his car and drove the 20 minutes to his lab at Merck & Co. to pick up some cotton swabs and beef broth. Returning home, he then awakened Jeryl Lynn, gently swabbed her throat, and immersed the swabs in the nutrient broth. Next, he drove back to his lab and put the inoculated broth in a freezer.

Hilleman made the early A.M. dashes to his lab and back because he had to leave in the morning for a conference in South America, and his daughter’s infection might have cleared by the time he returned home from there. So, upon his return from South America, Hilleman, thawed the frozen sample from his daughter’s throat and inoculated it into chick embryos. Serial passage of the mumps virus in the chick embryos eventually generated attenuated mumps virus that in 1967 would serve as a live mumps vaccine.

The virus in the vaccine was dubbed the Jeryl Lynn strain, in honor of its source. Years later, an adult Jeryl Lynn Hilleman noted that her father had a need to be “of use to people, of use to humanity.” She added: “All I did was get sick at the right time, with the right virus, with the right father.”

We’ll have a bit more to say about the mumps vaccine shortly. But first, a few words about measles and rubella.

If mumps was not a major killer, measles certainly was. Before Hilleman and his colleagues introduced their measles vaccine (Rubeovax) in 1962, there were 7 to 8 million measles fatalities worldwide each year, and virtually all of the victims were children. Hilleman developed his attenuated measles vaccine from a measles strain isolated earlier by John Enders. Hilleman attenuated the Enders isolate by putting it through 80 serial passages in different cell types.

[Aside: In a previous posting, we noted that Enders, together with colleagues Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins, shared a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for growing poliovirus in non-nervous tissue (3). Apropos the current story, bear in mind that Salk and Sabin developed polio vaccines that have nearly rid the world of this once dread virus. Nevertheless, the Nobel award to Enders, Weller, and Robbins was the only Nobel award ever given in recognition of polio research!]

Rubeovax was somewhat tainted by its side effects; mainly fever and rash. While these reactions were successfully dealt with by combining Rubeovax with a dose of gamma globulin, in 1968 Hilleman’s group developed a new, more attenuated measles strain by passage of the Rubeovax virus 40 more times through animal tissues. Hilleman dubbed the new measles strain “Moraten,” for “More Attenuated Enders.” The new measles vaccine, Attenuvax, was administered without any need for gamma globulin.

Our chronicle continues with the rubella vaccine. Rubella poses its greatest danger to fetuses of non-immune pregnant woman, particularly during the first trimester of pregnancy. In up to 85% of these women, infection will result in a miscarriage or a baby born with severe congenital abnormalities. An outbreak of rubella began in Europe in the spring of 1963, and quickly spread worldwide. In the United States, the 1963 rubella outbreak resulted in the deaths of 11,000 fetuses, and an additional 20,000 others born with birth defects (e.g., deafness, heart disease, cataracts).

Hilleman had been working on a rubella vaccine at the time of the 1963 outbreak. But, he was persuaded to drop his own vaccine and, instead, refine a vaccine (based on a Division of Biologics Standards’ rubella strain) that was at the time too toxic to inoculate into people. By 1969 Hilleman was able to attenuate the DBS strain sufficiently for the vaccine to be approved by the FDA.

Next, and importantly, Hilleman combined the mumps, measles, and rubella vaccines into the single trivalent MMR vaccine, making vaccination and, hence, compliance vastly easier. Thus, MMR was a development that should have been well received by many small children and their mothers, as well as by public health officials.

In 1978 Hilleman found that another rubella vaccine was better than the one in the trivalent vaccine. Its designer, Stanley Plotkin (then at the Wistar Institute), was said to be speechless when asked by Hilleman if his (Plotkin’s) vaccine could be used in the MMR. Merck officials may also have been speechless, considering their loss in revenues. But for Hilleman, it was simply the correct thing to do.

Like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin before him (3), Maurice Hilleman was never awarded a Nobel Prize. There is no obvious reason for the slight in any of these three instances. In Salk’s case, it may have been because Alfred Nobel, in his will, specified that the award for Physiology or Medicine shall be for a discovery per se; not for applied research, irrespective of its benefits to humanity. But, Max Theiler received the Nobel Prize for producing a yellow fever vaccine. What’s more, the Nobel committee seemed to equivocate regarding the discovery that might have been involved in that instance. Regardless, the Nobel award to Theiler was the only Nobel Prize ever awarded for a vaccine! [A more complete accounting of the development of Theiler’s yellow fever vaccine can be found in The Struggle Against Yellow Fever: Featuring Walter Reed and Max Theiler, now on the blog.]

Sabin had done basic research that perhaps merited a Nobel Prize (3). But, the Nobel committee may have felt uneasy about giving the award to Sabin, without also recognizing Salk. Or, perhaps the continual back-and-forth carping between supporters of Salk and Sabin may have reduced enthusiasm in Stockholm for both of them.

Yet by virtually any measure, Hilleman’s achievements vastly exceeded those of Salk, Sabin, Theiler, and just about everyone else. His basic interferon work alone should have earned him the Prize. Hilleman’s group demonstrated that certain nucleic acids stimulate interferon production in many types of cells, and detailed interferon’s ability to impede or kill many viruses, and correctly predicted its efficacy in the treatment of viral infections (e.g., hepatitis B and C), cancers (e.g., certain leukemias and lymphomas), and chronic diseases (e.g., multiple sclerosis). What’s more, Hilleman developed procedures to mass-produce and purify interferon. And, regarding his unmatched achievements as a vaccinologist, he did more than merely emulate Pasteur’s procedures for developing attenuated viral vaccines. His hepatitis B vaccine was the first subunit vaccine produced in the United States. It was comprised of the hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), which Hilleman purified from the blood of individuals who tended to be infected with hepatitis B virus (e.g., IV drug abusers). Subsequently, to avoid the potential danger of using human blood products in the vaccine, Hilleman developed recombinant yeast cells that produced the HBsAg. And, Hilleman’s meningococcal vaccine was the first vaccine to be based on polysaccharides, rather than on a whole pathogen or its protein subunits.

So, why then was Hilleman bypassed by the Nobel committee? John E. Calfree, in The American, wrote: “As the 80-plus-year-old Hilleman approached death, Offit and other academic scientists lobbied the Nobel committee to award Hilleman the Nobel Prize for Medicine, based partly on his vaccine work and partly on his contributions to the basic science of interferons. The committee made clear that it was not going to award the prize to an industry scientist.” (4) [Paul Offit, referred to here, is the co-developer of the rotavirus vaccine, Rotateq, and a biographer of Hilleman.]

Calfree also notes that Hilleman’s tendency towards self effacement, and his absence from the academic and public spotlight, may also have worked against him. And, unlike Salk, whose name was closely linked to his polio vaccine (3), Hilleman’s name was never associated with any of his nearly forty vaccines. [Yet in the case of Jonas Salk, his public acclaim is generally believed to have hurt him in the eyes of his colleagues and of the Nobel committee.]

Considering the enormity of Hilleman’s contributions, his anonymity was really quite remarkable. As Calfree relates: “In one of the most striking of the dozens of anecdotes told by Offit, Hilleman’s death was announced to a meeting of prominent public health officials, epidemiologists, and clinicians gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Salk polio vaccine. Not one of them recognized Hilleman’s name!”

With Hilleman’s public anonymity in mind, we conclude our account with the following anecdote. In 1998, a Dr. Andrew Wakefield became a celebrity and hero in the eyes of the public. How this happened, and its consequences are troubling for several reasons, one of which is that it brought undeserved suffering to the self-effacing and benevolent Maurice Hilleman. The Wakefield incident merits, and will have a full-length blog posting of its own. But for now, in 1998 Wakefield authored a report in the prestigious British journal The Lancet, in which he claimed that the MMR vaccine might cause autism in children. The story had a bizarre series of twists and turns, with Wakefield and co-authors eventually issuing a retraction. The immediate cause of the retraction was the disclosure that Wakefield, on behalf of parents of autistic children, had accepted funding to investigate a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The purpose of the investigation was to determine whether a legal case against the vaccine manufacturer might have merit. In addition to the obvious conflict of interest, Wakefield’s paper had serious technical flaws as well. At any rate, a number of independent studies subsequently demonstrated that there is no causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism. And, in 2010 Wakefield was barred by the British Medical Society from the practice of medicine. But the harm had been done. Hilleman had become the recipient of hate mail and death threats. And, more important to Hilleman I expect, many worried parents, even today, prevent their children from receiving the MMR vaccine (5). Ironically, the very success of the MMR vaccine enabled people to forget just how devastating measles and rubella could be.  Maurice Hilleman succumbed to cancer on April 11, 2005.

1. Nature Medicine 11, S2 (2005)
2. Opening Pandora’s Box: Resurrecting the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Virus and Transmissible H5N1 Bird Flu  On the blog.
3. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin: One of the Great Rivalries of Medical Science  On the blog
4. Calfree, J.E., Medicine’s Miracle Man , The American, January 23, 2009
5. Reference 4 contains a somewhat similar tale, in which a 1992 article in Rolling Stone attributed the emergence of HIV to Hillary Koprowski’s polio vaccine. It created a sensation but, as might be expected, there was no evidence to support its premise.