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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.

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