Tag Archives: Maurice Brodie

Julius Youngner: Slighted Polio Vaccine Pioneer

This is a tale of the hurt that a junior investigator might feel when a senior investigator takes the lion’s share of the credit for the junior investigator’s crucial breakthroughs. Jonas Salk, who conceived and oversaw the development of the first widely used polio vaccine, is the senior investigator in this anecdote. Julius Youngner, the last surviving member of the original vaccine research team that Salk assembled in the early 1950s at the University of Pittsburgh, is the slighted assistant. Youngner later had his own distinguished career. He passed away in April of this year. Here is their story.

After earning his Ph.D. in microbiology, Youngner was drafted into the World War II U.S. Army, which assigned him to the Manhattan Project, to test the toxicity of uranium salts. Youngner first learned the purpose of the Manhattan Project when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

After the war, Youngner worked as a commissioned officer for the U.S. Public Health Service. This was a significant stop in his career, since it was there that he first became interested in viruses and cell culture. But, since there was no opportunity for him to pursue that interest in Bethesda, he began to look elsewhere. Thus, it happened in 1949 that Salk recruited Youngner to join his vaccine research team in Pittsburgh, after a mutual acquaintance told Salk that Youngner was eager to work on viruses and cell culture.

Jonas Salk and Julius Youngner at the University of Pittsburgh, early 1950s

Salk hoped that Youngner might find a way to generate enough cells from monkey kidney tissue to support mass-production of the vaccine. Youngner, on his own, then developed the use of the proteolytic enzyme, trypsin, to disperse tissue fragments into individual cells, thereby generating many more cells from a given amount of tissue. Indeed, Youngner could generate enough cells to support manufacture of the vaccine. This was his first key contribution to the vaccine project. “Trypsinization” remains a mainstay of modern cell culture.

Youngner’s next major contribution to the vaccine enterprise was his development of a rapid analytical test that had two crucial applications. First, recalling that the Salk vaccine contains an inactivated virus, Youngner’s so-called “color test” made it possible to quickly screen batches of the vaccine for any live virus that might have survived the inactivation process.  Second, Youngner’s test made it possible to quickly test the vaccine’s ability to induce anti-poliovirus antibodies (1). [Youngner based his color test on an earlier observation by John Enders, Tom Weller, and Fred Robbins, that metabolic activity (as indicated by a drop in pH) was less in cultures inoculated with live virus than in control cultures (2, 3). In Youngner’s test, a color change of phenol red, resulting from a shift in pH, served as an indicator of virus activity, or of antibody activity.]

Some sources credit Youngner with having devised the process for inactivating the virus. But, that is correct in a very limited sense only. Salk selected incubation in formalin as the means to disable the virus. In truth, Salk learned of that approach a decade earlier while doing postgraduate studies under Thomas Francis at the University of Michigan. Francis was then using formaldehyde to produce his killed influenza vaccine (2).

What’s more, Salk’s choice of formalin to generate his polio vaccine was bold. Earlier, in the 1930s, Canadian scientist Maurice Brodie tested a formalin-killed polio vaccine in twelve children, with disastrous results. Several of the children developed paralytic poliomyelitis (4).

Clearly, too little exposure to formalin could leave enough live virus to cause paralytic poliomyelitis or death. On the other hand, too much exposure could so badly damage the virus’ proteins that they might no longer induce an immune response against the live virus. Brodie did not have analytical procedures to ensure that he had inactivated his vaccine to safe levels. In contrast, it was clear to Salk that getting the correct balance would be vital to his vaccine project, and Youngner’s color test was the means for doing so. Youngner used his test to determine that six days of incubation in a 1:4,000 formalin solution would result in one live virus particle in 100 million doses of the vaccine (5).

Since Youngner’s inactivation curve was based on only a few data points, and since it was likely that the slope of the curve might flatten out after a time, Salk added a margin of safety of six extra days. Thus produced, the vaccine induced antibody production in monkeys, while showing no signs of causing paralysis or other problems.

By 1954, 800,000 children had been successfully immunized against polio in the first clinical trial of the vaccine. In April 1955, the outcome of the trial would be announced to a very grateful public.

By 1957, Salk’s vaccine team at Pittsburgh was no longer needed, and was dispersing. Salk was making plans to leave Pittsburgh for California, where he would found the prestigious Salk Institute. Youngner, now 34 years-old, remained at Pittsburgh, where he would begin his own distinguished career.

Although Youngner was now independent of Salk, he remained bitter over his former boss’s failure to acknowledge the underlings who had labored so diligently behind the scenes to bring the vaccine to fruition. “The first rule we learned was to call him ‘Dr Salk,’ never Jonas. He would speak to us through a wall of notes and memos…Here was a guy who could always find an hour to brief some reporter at the local Chinese restaurant, but could never find the time to sit down with his own people (6).”

Youngner was particularly appalled by events involving the paper he wrote describing his color test. “After I had what I considered to be a good draft…I gave my copy to Jonas for his comments. It should be noted this was 1954, the pre-Xerox, pre-word-processing era. I had made a working transcript of the paper for my own use and it was this copy that I handed to him. Also, it should be noted that the title page had the authors listed as ‘J.S. Youngner and E.N. Ward (6).’” Elsie Ward, who served as Youngner’s technician, was a zoologist who specialized in growing viruses.

Salk intended to read Youngner’s manuscript while away on a trip.  When Salk returned a week later, he claimed that he had lost the manuscript, but that he had jotted down some notes from which he was able to produce a draft of his own. Youngner was rather incredulous that a person as meticulous and disciplined as Salk could lose such an important manuscript. Youngner’s skepticism was further roused by the fact that Salk’s version contained all the data in Youngner’s original manuscript. Salk explained that incongruity, alleging that he found Youngner’s tables, but not the text.

In any case, Youngner was especially upset by a specific change Salk made to the title page of the manuscript: “The authors were now ‘Jonas E. Salk, J.S. Youngner, and Elsie N. Ward.’ When I (Youngner) questioned the change, Jonas said that since he had to reconstruct the whole paper it was only fair that his name go first…It was obvious to me then, and is more so now, that he considered the advance in this paper a major one and he wanted his name associated with it, even though at the time he had done nothing in the lab (no kidding!) or of an advisory nature to initiate or carry out the work (6).”

Youngner could grudgingly accept that project leaders often used their senior position to appear as co-authors, or even principal authors, on papers emanating from their labs, even if their contributions were minimal. What troubled Youngner in this instance was not that Salk pulled rank, but rather his seeming duplicity.

In yet another instance—the 1955 public announcement of the successful outcome of the clinical trial—Youngner again sensed “a pattern of deception on Salk’s part to take undue credit for the discoveries of others (6).” Salk advocated for the announcement to happen at the University of Pittsburgh. However, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (better known as the “March of Dimes”), which funded the vaccine project, chose the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as the site for the announcement. That was where Michigan professor Thomas Francis supervised the evaluation of the field trial. [Note that the NIH was not able to fund research back then the way it can today. Thus, the polio vaccine project was supported nearly entirely by private donations to the National Foundation.]

Thomas Francis spoke first. Then, when Salk spoke, he acknowledged the more prominent players in the vaccine project, including Thomas Francis, Harry Weaver (director of research at the National Foundation), Tom Rivers (chairman of the advisory committees on research and vaccines for the  National Foundation), and Basil O’Connor (law partner of Franklin Roosevelt, recruited by Roosevelt in 1928 to raise funds for polio patients at Roosevelt’s Warm Springs Foundation, and a co-founder with Roosevelt of the National Foundation in 1938; (2)). Salk then acknowledged various deans and trustees at the University of Pittsburgh. Yet, he made no mention whatsoever of his dedicated coworkers in his laboratory. They had been expecting at least some recognition from their boss.

Some of Salk’s defenders argued that Salk had acted in the best scientific tradition by prefacing his printed remarks with the phrase, “From the Staff of the Virus Laboratory by Jonas E. Salk, M.D.” But, this was small consolation to Youngner and others of Salk’s coworkers, who expected to be individually acknowledged for their exhausting work on behalf of the life-saving vaccine. Indeed, they felt betrayed.

At any rate, the 1955 announcement of the success of the polio vaccine field trials was joyously received by the public. And while Youngner remained embittered over Salk’s slighting of his coworkers, he nonetheless understood that from the point of view of the National Foundation, “it was much easier to continue raising money when you have a hero, and they had an enormous public relations department that took up Jonas’ name as the hero, which he deserved…But in the meantime, Jonas was, how shall I say, not very generous to his colleagues and he made sure that nobody else was ever mentioned (6).”

The following excerpt is from Polio: An American Story (6). “In September 1963, Salk returned to Pittsburgh to attend the unveiling of his portrait in the auditorium of the University’s medical complex, a stone’s throw from the hospital where he had done his historic polio research. Before the ceremony, Salk told Dean George Bernier that he wished to speak privately with his former assistant, Julius Youngner, now a distinguished professor at the school of medicine. The two men hadn’t talked or crossed paths since Salk’s move to California in 1961. Salk saw the meeting as a courtesy to the only remaining member of his laboratory staff; Youngner had a different agenda. Speaking softly, he recalled, he slowly released the ‘hurt’ he had bottled up for more than thirty years. ‘Do you still have the speech you gave in Ann Arbor in1955? Have you ever reread it?’ Youngner began. ‘We were in the audience, your closest colleagues and devoted associates, who worked hard and faithfully for the same goal that you desired…Do you remember who you mentioned and who you left out? Do you realize how devastated we were at that moment and ever afterward when you persisted in making your coworkers invisible? Do you know what I’m saying,’ I asked. He answered that he did…Jonas was clearly shaken by these memories and offered little response.’…The two men engaged in some uncomfortable small talk before Dean Bernier returned to escort them to the ceremony. Speaking later to a reporter, Youngner admitted, ‘I got a lot of things off my chest. I’m beyond the point where I pull my punches with him. I think it was the first time he ever heard it so graphically.’ Asked if he had any regrets about working for Salk, Youngner replied: ‘Absolutely not. You can’t imagine what a thrill that gave me. My only regret is that he disappointed me.”’

Epilogue:

Jonas Salk is deservedly celebrated for developing the killed polio vaccine. That vaccine, together with Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, which followed soon afterwards, has nearly eradicated polio worldwide. Importantly, Sabin and other polio researchers believed that only a live vaccine could induce a level of immunity sufficient to protect against a challenge with live virulent virus. Nonetheless, Salk persevered in his conviction that a killed vaccine could protect against polio, and he was right.

Salk founded the prestigious Salk Institute in 1963. Yet he never himself made another notable contribution to science.

Youngner may be best known for his work on the Salk vaccine. Yet he had a distinguished career of his own at the University of Pittsburgh after Salk left. Youngner is especially noted for his contributions to interferon research. These include his finding that non-viral agents could trigger interferon induction in animals. And, in collaboration with colleague Samuel Salvin, he identified a second type of interferon, now known as gamma-interferon. Youngner also helped to explain the antiviral-effect of interferon, and he was the first researcher to demonstrate that some viruses express countermeasures against interferon.

Youngner also made important findings in the area of persistent virus infections. Importantly, he demonstrated that defective viral variants, including temperature-sensitive mutants, can play a role in the establishment and maintenance of viral persistence; doing so by impairing (modulating) the replication of the wild-type parental viruses. Based on that principle, Youngner sought to develop dominant-negative mutants of influenza virus as a novel means of anti-influenza therapy. In addition, Youngner and colleague Patricia Dowling developed a novel live attenuated vaccine against equine influenza virus, based on a cold-adapted influenza virus, which can replicate only at the temperatures found in the respiratory tract. That live vaccine was the first to prevent a serious respiratory disease of horses.

Julius Youngner, 2010

References:

  1. Salk, J.E., Youngner, J.S, Ward, E.N. (1954). Use of Color Change of Phenol Red as the Indicator in Titrating Poliomyelitis Virus or Its Antibody in a Tissue–Culture System,” American Journal of Epidemiology. 60: 214–230.
  2. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin: One of the Great Rivalries of Medical Science, Posed on the blog March 27, 2014.
  3. John Enders: “The Father of Modern Vaccines,” Posted on the blog August 4, 2016.
  4. Vaccine Research using Children, Posted on the blog, July 7, 2016.
  5. Williams, G., Paralysed with Fear: The Story of Polio, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  6. Oshinsky, D.M., Polio: An American Story, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Vaccine Research using Children

Children have been used in vaccine research since its very beginning, usually said to have been in 1796, when Edward Jenner inoculated 8-year-old James Phipps with cowpox, and then challenged young James with actual smallpox (1). However, earlier, in 1789, Jenner inoculated his own 10-month-old son, Edward Jr., with swinepox. Edward Jr. then came down with a pox disease, which he fortunately recovered from. His father then challenged him with smallpox.

Edward Jr. survived his exposure to smallpox. But, since Edward Sr. wanted to determine the duration of young Edward’s protection, he again challenged his son with smallpox in 1791, when the boy was two.  Edward Sr. inoculated his son yet again with smallpox when the boy was three. Fortunately, young Edward was resistant to each of the smallpox challenges his father subjected him to.

Jenner used several other young children in his experiments, including his second son, Robert, who was 11-months-old at the time. One of the children in Jenner’s experiments died from a fever; possibly caused by a microbial contaminant in an inoculum. [Microbes were not known in the late 18th century.]

We have no record of how Jenner (or his wife) felt about his use of his own children. However, there is reason to believe that Jenner felt some remorse over his use of James Phipps, who he referred to as “poor James.” Jenner looked after Phipps in later years, eventually building a cottage for him; even planting flowers in front of it himself.

By the 20th century, some of the most esteemed medical researchers were using children—in institutions for the mentally deficient—to test new drugs, vaccines, and even surgical procedures. These institutions were typically underfunded and understaffed. Several of them were cited for neglecting and abusing their residents. Moreover, their young patients were usually from poor families, or were orphans, or were abandoned. Thus, many of the children had no one to look out for their interests. In addition, research at these institutions was hidden from the public. [The goings-on at these institutions were, in general, hidden from the public, and most of the public likely preferred it that way.] Federal regulations that might have protected the children were not yet in existence, and federal approval was not even required to test vaccines and drugs.

In the early 1940s, Werner Henle, of the University of Pennsylvania, used children at Pennhurst—a Pennsylvania facility for the mentally deficient—in his research to develop an influenza vaccine. [Pennhurst was eventually  infamous for its inadequate staffing, and for neglecting and abusing its patients (2). It was closed in 1987, after two decades of federal legal actions.] Henle would inoculate his subjects with the vaccine, and then expose them to influenza, using an oxygen mask fitted to their faces.

Pennhurst, a state-funded Pennsylvania facility for the mentally deficient, was one of the most shameful examples of the neglect and mistreatment that was common at these institutions. It was the site of Werner Henle’s research in the 1940s to develop an influenza vaccine.
Pennhurst, a state-funded Pennsylvania facility for the mentally deficient, was one of the most shameful examples of the neglect and mistreatment that was common at these institutions. It was the site of Werner Henle’s research in the 1940s to develop an influenza vaccine.

Henle’s vaccine did not protect all of his subjects. Moreover, it frequently caused side effects. Additionally, Henle maintained (correctly?) that a proper test of a vaccine must include a control group (i.e., a group exposed to the virus, but not to the vaccine). Thus, he deliberately exposed unvaccinated children to influenza. Children who contracted influenza had fevers as high as 104o F, as well as typical flu-like aches and pains.

Despite Henle’s investigations at Pennhuerst, he was a highly renowned virologist, best known for his later research on Epstein Barr virus. See Aside 1.

      [Aside 1: While Henle was researching his influenza vaccine at Pennhurst, Jonas Salk concurrently worked on an influenza vaccine, using adult residents (ranging in age from 20 to 70 years) at the Ypsilanti State School in Michigan.]

Next, consider Hilary Koprowski, an early competitor of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in the race to develop a polio vaccine (3). By 1950, Koprowski was ready to test his live polio vaccine in people. [That was four years before Sabin would be ready to do the same with his live polio vaccine.] Koprowski had already found that his vaccine protected chimpanzees against polio virus. And, he also tested his vaccine on himself. Since neither he nor the chimpanzees suffered any ill effects, Koprowski proceeded to test his vaccine on 20 children at Letchworth Village for mentally disabled children, in Rockland County, NY.  [Like Pennhurst, Letchworth Village too was cited for inadequately caring for its residents.]  Seventeen of Koprowski’s inoculated children developed antibodies to the virus, and none developed complications.

Koprowski did not initiate his association with Letchworth. Actually, Letchworth administrators, fearing an outbreak of polio at the facility, approached Koprowski, requesting that he vaccinate the children. Koprowski gave each child “a tablespoon of infectious material” in half a glass of chocolate milk (4). Koprowski never deliberately infected the Letchworth children with virulent virus.

Koprowski reported the results of his Letchworth studies at a 1951 conference of major polio researchers, attended by both Salk and Sabin. When Koprowski announced that he actually had tested a live vaccine in children, many conferees were stunned, even horrified. Sabin shouted out: “Why did you do it? Why? Why (4)?” See Aside 2.

      [Aside 2: In the 1930s, Canadian scientist Maurice Brodie tested a killed polio vaccine in twelve children, who supposedly had been “volunteered by their parents (4).” For a short time Brodie was hailed as a hero. However, too little was known at the time for Brodie to ensure that his formaldehyde treatment had sufficiently inactivated the live polio virus. Consequently, Brodie’s vaccine actually caused polio in several of the children. After this incident, most polio researchers could not conceive of ever again testing a polio vaccine, much less a live one, in children.]

Neither Koprowski nor Letchworth Village administrators notified New York State officials about the tests. Approval from the state would seem to have been required, since Koprowski later admitted that he was certain he would have been turned down. And, it is not clear whether Koprowski or the school ever got consent from the parents to use their children. However, recall there were not yet any federal regulations that required them to do so.

Koprowski was untroubled by the uproar over his use of the Letchworth children, arguing that his experiments were necessary. Yet he later acknowledged: “if we did such a thing now we’d be put on jail…” But, he added, “If Jenner or Pasteur or Theiler (see Aside 2) or myself had to repeat and test our discoveries [today], there would be no smallpox vaccine, no rabies vaccine, no yellow fever vaccine, and no live oral polio vaccine.”  Moreover, he maintained that, secret or not, his use of the Letchworth children fit well within the boundaries of accepted scientific practice.

   [Aside 2: Nobel laureate Max Theiler developed a vaccine against yellow fever in 1937; the first successful live vaccine of any kind (5). Theiler formulated a test for the efficacy of his vaccine, which did not involve exposing humans to virulent virus. Sera from vaccinated human subjects were injected into mice, which were then challenged with the Yellow Fever virus.]

Koprowski referred to the Letchworth children as “volunteers (6).” This prompted the British journal The Lancet to write: “One of the reasons for the richness of the English language is that the meaning of some words is continually changing. Such a word is “volunteer.” We may yet read in a scientific journal that an experiment was carried out with twenty volunteer mice, and that twenty other mice volunteered as controls.” See Aside 3.

     [Aside 3: Koprowski was a relatively unknown scientist when he carried out his polio research at Letchworth. He later became a renowned virologist, having overseen the development of a rabies vaccine that is still used today, and having pioneered the use of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies. Yet, he is best remembered for developing the world’s first effective polio vaccine; several years before Salk and Sabin brought out their vaccines.

   Most readers of the blog are aware that the Salk and Sabin vaccines are credited with having made the world virtually polio-free. What then became of Koprowski’s vaccine? Although it was used on four continents, it was never licensed in the United States. A small field trial of Koprowski’s vaccine in 1956, in Belfast, showed that its attenuated virus could revert to a virulent form after inoculation into humans. Yet a 1958 test, in nearly a quarter million people in the Belgian Congo, showed that the vaccine was safe and effective. Regardless, the vaccine’s fate was sealed in 1960, when the U.S. Surgeon General rejected it on safety grounds, while approving the safer Sabin vaccine. Personalities and politics may well have played a role in that decision (3, 4).

  Interestingly, Sabin developed his vaccine from a partially attenuated polio virus stock that he received from Koprowski. It happened as follows. In the early 1950s, when Koprowski’s polio research was further along than Sabin’s, Sabin approached Koprowski with the suggestion that they might exchange virus samples. Koprowski generously sent Sabin his samples, but Sabin never reciprocated.

   Koprowski liked to say: “I introduce myself as the developer of the Sabin poliomyelitis vaccine (7).” He and Sabin had a sometimes heated adversarial relationship during the time when their vaccines were in competition. But they later became friends.]

Sabin was at last ready to test his polio vaccine in people during the winter of 1954-1955. Thirty adult prisoners, at a federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, were the subjects for that first test in humans. [The use of prisoners also raises ethical concerns.]

Recall Sabin’s public outcry in 1951 when Koprowski announced that he used institutionalized children to test his polio vaccine. In 1954, Sabin sought permission to do the very same himself; asserting to New York state officials: “Mentally defective children, who are under constant observation in an institution over long periods of time, offer the best opportunity for the careful and prolonged follow-up studies…”

Although Sabin had already tested his attenuated viruses in adult humans (prisoners), as well as in monkeys and chimpanzees, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which funded polio research in the pre-NIH days of the 1950s, blocked his proposal to use institutionalized children. Thus, Sabin again used adult prisoners at the federal prison in Ohio. With the concurrence of prison officials, virtually every inmate over 21 years-old “volunteered,” in exchange for $25 each, and a possible reduction in sentence. None of the prisoners in the study became ill, while all developed antibodies against polio virus.

Testing in children was still a necessary step before a polio vaccine could be administered to children on a widespread basis. But, Sabin’s vaccine could not be tested in children in the United States. Millions of American children had already received the killed Salk vaccine, and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was not about to support another massive field trial of a vaccine, in children, in the United States (3).

Then, in 1959, after a succession of improbable events, 10 million children in the Soviet Union were vaccinated with Sabin’s vaccine (3). The Soviets were so pleased with the results of that massive trial that they next vaccinated all seventy-seven million Soviet citizens under 20 years-of-age with the Sabin vaccine. That figure vastly exceeded the number of individuals in the United States, who were vaccinated with the rival Salk vaccine during its field trials.

Next up, we have Nobel laureate John Enders who, in the 1950’s, oversaw the development of the first measles vaccine. Enders and co-workers carried out several trials of their attenuated measles vaccine; first in monkeys and then in themselves. Since the vaccine induced an increase in measles antibody titers, while causing no ill effects, they next tested it in severely handicapped children at the Walter E. Fernald State School near Waltham, Massachusetts.

Enders seemed somewhat more sensitive than either Henle or Koprowski to the ethics of using institutionalized children. Samuel L. Katz, the physician on Enders’ team, personally explained the trial to every Fernald parent, and no child was given the vaccine without written parental consent. [Federal guidelines requiring that step still did not exist.] Also, no child was deliberately infected with virulent measles virus.

Katz personally examined each of the inoculated Fernald children every day. None of these children produced measles virus, while all of them developed elevated levels of anti-measles antibodies. Also, the Fernald School had been experiencing severe measles outbreaks before the Enders team vaccinated any of its children. But, when the next measles outbreak struck the school, all of the vaccinated children were totally protected.

In 1963, the Enders vaccine became the first measles vaccine to be licensed in the United States. Several years later it was further attenuated by Maurice Hilleman (8) and colleagues at Merck. In 1971, it was incorporated into the Merck MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. See Aside 4.

    [Aside 4: Before Enders carried out his measles investigations he pioneered the growth of viruses in tissue culture. In 1949, Enders, and collaborators Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins, showed that poliovirus could be cultivated in the laboratory. This development was crucial, allowing Salk and Sabin to grow a virtually unlimited amount of polio virus and, consequently, to develop their polio vaccines. In 1954, Enders, Weller, and Robbins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their polio virus work.]

It may surprise some readers that before the mid 1960s the so-called Nuremburg Code of 1947 comprised the only internationally recognized ethical guidelines for experimentation on human subjects. The Nuremburg Code was drawn up by an American military tribunal during the trial of 23 Nazi physicians and scientists for atrocities they committed while carrying out so-called “medical” experiments during World War II. [Sixteen of the 23 Nazis on trial at Nuremburg were convicted, and 7 of these were executed (see Note 1)].

The Nuremberg Code’s Directives for Human Experimentation contained strongly stated guidelines. Its tenets included the need to obtain informed consent (interpreted by some to prohibit research using children), the need to minimize the risks to human subjects, and the need to insure that any risks are offset by potential benefits to society.

But, despite the well-articulated principles of the Nuremberg Code, it had little effect on research conduct in the United States. Federal rules, with the authority to regulate research conduct, would be needed for that. So, how did our current federal oversight of research come to be?

A 1996 paper in the The New England Journal of Medicine, “Ethics and Clinical Research,” by physician Henry Beecher, brought to the fore the need for rules to protect human subjects in biomedical research (9). Beecher was roused to write the paper in part by the early 1960s experiments of Saul Krugman, an infectious disease expert at NYU. Krugman used mentally deficient children at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York, to show that hepatitis A and hepatitis B are distinct diseases (9). Also, before a hepatitis vaccine was available, Krugman inoculated the children with serum from convalescing individuals, to ask whether that serum might protect the children against hepatitis. Krugman exposed the children to live virus either by injection, or via milkshakes seeded with feces from children with hepatitis.

Krugman found that convalescent sera indeed conferred passive immunity to hepatitis. Next, he discovered that by infecting passively protected patients with live hepatitis virus he could produce active immunity. Krugman had, in fact, developed the world’s first vaccine against hepatitis B virus (HBV) (see Aside 4). [Although Krugman used mentally deficient institutionalized children in his experiments, his investigations were nonetheless funded in part by a federal agency; the Armed Forces Epidemiology Section of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office.]

         [Aside 4: The first hepatitis B vaccine licensed for widespread use was developed at Merck, based on principles put forward by Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg, (10).]

Beecher was particularly troubled by two aspects of Krugman’s experiments. First, Krugman infected healthy children with live virulent virus. Beecher maintained that it is morally unacceptable to deliberately infect any individual with an infectious agent, irrespective of the potential benefits to society. [See reference 11 for an alternative view. “The ethical issue is the harm done by the infection, not the mere fact of infection itself.”]

Second, Beecher charged that the Willowbrook School’s administrators coerced parents into allowing their children to be used in Krugman’s research. The circumstances were as follows. Because of overcrowding at the school, Willowbrook administrators closed admission via the usual route. However, space was still available in a separate hepatitis research building, thereby enabling admission of additional children who might be used in the research.

Were the Willowbrook parents coerced into allowing their children to be used in the research there? Consider that the parents were poor and in desperate need of a means of providing care for their mentally impaired children. Making admission of the children contingent on allowing them to be used in the research might well be viewed as coercion. Yet even today, with federal guidelines now in place to protect human subjects, institutions such as the NIH Clinical Center admit patients who agree to participate in research programs. Is that coercion?

Beecher’s 1966 paper cited a total of 22 instances of medical research that Beecher claimed were unethical (9). Four examples involved research using children. Krugman’s work at Willowbrook was the only one of these four examples that involved vaccine research. Beecher’s other examples involved research using pregnant women, fetuses, and prisoners. But it was Beecher’s condemnation of Krugman’s hepatitis research at Willowbrook that is mainly credited with stirring debate over the ethics of using children in research.

Did Krugman deserve Beecher’s condemnation? Before Krugman began his investigations at Willowbrook, he plainly laid out his intentions in a 1958 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (12). Importantly, Krugman listed a number of ethical considerations, which show that he did not undertake his Willowbrook investigations lightly. In fact, Krugman’s ethical considerations, together with his plans to minimize risks to the children, were not unlike the assurances one might now submit to an institutional review board (11).

Many (but not all) knowledgeable biomedical researchers claimed that Beecher misunderstood Krugman’s research and, thus, unjustly vilified him. Krugman was never officially censored for his Willowbrook investigations. Moreover, condemnation of Krugman did not prevent his election in 1972 to the presidency of the American Pediatric Society, or to his 1983 Lasker Public Service Award.

To Beecher’s credit, his 1966 paper was instrumental in raising awareness of the need to regulate research using human subjects. Beecher was especially concerned with the protection of children and, apropos that, the nature of informed consent.

In 1974, the National Research Act was signed into law, creating the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The basic ethical principles identified by the Commission are summarized in its so-called Belmont Report, issued in 1978. Its tenets include minimizing harm to all patients, and the need to especially protect those with “diminished autonomy” or who are incapable of “self-determination.”  In addition, federal guidelines now require universities and other research institutions to have Institutional Review Boards to protect human subjects of biomedical research. [Reference 13 (available on line) contains a detailed history of the establishment of these policies.]  See Aside 6.

      [Aside 6: The infamous U.S. Public Health Service Tuskegee syphilis research program, conducted between 1932 and 1972, in which several hundred impoverished black men were improperly advised and never given appropriate treatment for their syphilis, also raised public awareness of the need to protect human subjects. More recently, research involving embryonic stem cells and fetuses has stoked an ongoing and heated public debate. Policies regarding this research are still not settled, with stem-cell research being legal in some states, and a crime in others. Other recent technological advances, such as DNA identification and shared databases, have been raising new concerns, such as the need to protect patient privacy. In response to these new developments, in June 2016, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report proposing new rules (indeed a complete overhaul of the 1978 Belmont Report) to deal with these circumstances. The Academy’s report has stirred debate in the biomedical community]

Note 1: The use of children in medical research makes many of us profoundly uneasy. We may be particularly troubled by accounts of the exploitation of institutionalized children, who comprised a uniquely defenseless part of society. Indeed, it was the very vulnerability of those children that made it possible for them to be exploited by researchers. Consequently, some readers may well be asking whether the activities of vaccine researchers Krugman, Koprowski, Sabin, Henle and others might have been comparable to that of the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg. So, I offer this cautionary interjection. While in no way condoning the vaccine researchers using institutionalized children, their work was carried out for the sole purpose of saving human lives. As Koprowski suggested above, if not for that work, we might not have vaccines against smallpox, rabies, yellow fever, and polio. Now, consider Josef Mengele, a Nazi medical officer at Auschwitz, and the most infamous of the Nazi physicians. [Mengele was discussed several times at Nuremberg, but was never actually tried. Allied forces were convinced at the time that he was dead, but he had escaped to South America.] At Auschwitz, Mengele conducted germ warfare “research” in which he would infect one twin with a disease such as typhus, and then transfuse that twin’s blood into the other twin. The first twin would be allowed to die, while the second twin would be killed so that the organs of the two children might then be compared. Mengele reputedly killed fourteen twin children in a single night via a chloroform injection to the heart. Moreover, he unnecessarily amputated limbs and he experimented on pregnant women before sending them to the Auschwitz gas chambers.

References:

  1. Edward Jenner and the Smallpox Vaccine, Posted on the blog September 16, 2014.
  2.  Pennhurst Asylum: The Shame of Pennsylvania, weirnj.com/stories/pennhurst-asylum/
  3.  Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin: One of the Great Rivalries of Medical Science, Posed on the blog March 27, 2014.
  4.  Oshinsky D, Polio: An American Story, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  5. The Struggle Against Yellow Fever: Featuring Walter Reed and Max Theiler, Posted on the blog May 13, 2014.
  6.  Koprowski H, Jervis GA, and Norton TW. Immune response in human volunteers upon oral administration of a rodent-adapted strain of poliomyelitis virus. American Journal of Hygiene, 1952, 55:108-126.
  7.  Fox M, Hilary Koprowski, Who Developed First Live-Virus Polio Vaccine Dies at 96, N.Y. Times, April 20, 2013.
  8. Maurice Hilleman: Unsung Giant of Vaccinology, Posted on the blog April 14, 2014.
  9. Beecher HK. Ethics and clinical research. The New England Journal of Medicine, 1966, 274:1354–1360.
  10.  Baruch Blumberg: The Hepatitis B Virus and Vaccine, Posted on the blog June 2, 2016.
  11.  Robinson WM, The Hepatitis Experiments at the Willowbrook State School. science.jburrougs.org/mbahe/BioEthics/Articles/WillowbrookRobinson2008.pdf
  12. Ward R, Krugman S, Giles JP, Jacobs AM, Bodansky O. Infectious hepatitis: Studies of its natural history and prevention. The New England Journal of Medicine, 1958, 258:407-416.
  13.  Ethical Conduct of Clinical Research Involving Children. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK25549/