Robert Chanock, Renowned Virologist, Dies at 86

Photomicrographic detection of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) using indirect immunofluorescence technique. CDC/ Dr. H. Craig Before Robert Chanock, MD, joined the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1957, researchers had not identified a culprit for a constellation of serious respiratory illnesses that affected infants and children each year, particularly in the winter. Soon after Chanock joined NIAID’s Laboratory of Infectious diseases, however, he and his colleagues identified and named the virus: respiratory syncytial virus. RSV, as it is commonly known, is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia among American children less than one year of age.

When asked if he had any advice for parents worried about RSV, Chanock alluded to the virus’s tendency to spread during the winter and famously quipped (though he noted that there was some truth to the remark) that parents should have their babies in the spring. Through his research efforts, however, he and his colleagues provided a better form of protection against the virus: an antibody to protect against RSV in infants at high risk for RSV illnesses.

Throughout his career, a great deal of Chanock’s research was in the field of respiratory disease. He collaborated with other researchers to discover parainfluenza viruses that cause childhood respiratory illnesses, isolate strains of the virus that causes the common cold, and isolate one of the causes of bacterial pneumonia.

Delving into the world of vaccines, Chanock was one of a group of researchers to develop a vaccine against an adenovirus that caused respiratory illness–a vaccine that was licensed and used by the military–and contributed to the development of the first nasal spray vaccine for influenza. He also pushed for research to develop vaccines against dengue fever, with candidate vaccines from his program in clinical trials now.

Chanock passed away on July 31, 2010, at the age of 86. In a statement released on August 3, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Director of NIAID, said “When I first was learning about infectious diseases, in medical school and residency, Bob’s papers and chapters popped up everywhere. The name ‘Chanock’ seemed synonymous with disease discovery… NIAID and NIH mourn the loss of Bob Chanock, an outstanding scientist whose innumerable contributions to the understanding of viral diseases helped make the world a healthier place for millions of people.”