In the 1960s, a medical doctor was interested in studying the influence that a person’s genes could have on susceptibility to disease, with an eye toward developing personalized medicine. By identifying individuals at high risk for a disease and studying environmental factors that interacted with their particular genetic variations, he hoped, researchers could develop approaches that at-risk individuals could use to prevent them from getting sick.
With colleagues, he traveled across the globe collecting blood samples from different populations. One set of samples produced a curious reaction: antibodies in the blood from a New York City hemophilia patient reacted with blood from a seemingly healthy Australian Aborigine. The serum from the hemophilia patient contained an antibody that reacted to something in the Australian’s blood.
That “something” would eventually be called the Australia antigen. The researcher was Baruch Blumberg.
The beginnings of an illustrious career
Baruch Blumberg studied math and physics as an undergraduate, but, as he told History of Vaccines during an interview in November 2010, “You could do physics alone… I wanted to do something with more personal engagement with people.” His father suggested that he go into medicine, and Blumberg obtained his medical degree from Columbia University.
Blumberg credited a friend, British geneticist Anthony Allison, with sparking his interest in genetic variations and their role in disease.
“The basic concept was that the first thing was to look for variation in serum proteins and infer genetic variation from that using traditional genetic methods,” Baruch told History of Vaccines last year. “And we’d study the variation in different parts of the world, learn about it, chronicle it, and then since we were in these locations… over time you’d figure out how the disease was related to the variation.
“To start with we didn’t know what diseases,” admitted Blumberg, “but we knew we’d find something.”
After Blumberg and his colleagues realized that some sort of an antigen in their Australian blood sample was reacting with antibodies in the New Yorker’s serum, they went back to their samples – a collection of several hundred thousand specimens – to see which other samples contained the “Australia antigen.” They discovered that it was quite rare in America, but common in Africa, Asia, and Micronesia.
Meanwhile, the researchers were also in contact with friends and colleagues who had helped collect samples for their specimen bank. One, a local practitioner from Georgia, had contributed samples from a group of people; one of the samples contained Australia antigen. When the researchers contacted him, he told them that the sample in question was from a patient with hepatitis.
The beginnings of a vaccine
Blumberg and his colleagues now had a hypothesis to test: that they would find a higher frequency of the Australia antigen in the blood of patients with hepatitis than in people without the disease. They collected even more blood—primarily in Philadelphia—including samples from people with both acute and chronic hepatitis, and found a very high frequency of the Australia antigen. The antigen would turn out to be a surface protein from the hepatitis B virus.
At this point, Blumberg already had the idea of a vaccine in mind. While in medical school and afterward, he had spent a lot of time in the tropics, where, as he put it, “[diseases] work themselves out in a big way… I think that primarily when you go into the impoverished parts of the world, particularly tropical ones, there’s so much disease that’s preventable, and vaccines can be enormously useful. So [I] had that in mind.”
The group developed techniques to purify the Australia antigen, which, when transmitted to animals, did not result in hepatitis infection—but did react with hepatitis B antibodies. Through these experiments, they determined that they could separate the Australia antigen from the whole hepatitis B virus—and that it was possible to make a hepatitis B vaccine.
The first cancer vaccine
The first licensed hepatitis B vaccine was derived from the blood of hepatitis B patients. It was developed by Maurice Hilleman at Merck and licensed by the FDA in 1981. In 1986, the FDA licensed a second hepatitis B vaccine from Merck, this one made using hepatitis B surface protein generated by yeast cells—the work of molecular biologist William Rutter. This recombinant vaccine is still used today, and because hepatitis B also causes liver cancer, can be considered the first vaccine against cancer.
In the United States, hepatitis B vaccine was added to the recommended childhood immunization schedule in 1991. Following its use, hepatitis B infection incidence in U.S. children and teens has dropped by 95%; in other parts of the world, the incidence of liver cancer has decreased by 99%.
Blumberg’s work also led to testing of donor blood in hospitals. Before testing became commonplace, post blood-transfusion hepatitis could occur if blood donors had hepatitis. But as a result of Blumberg’s work, the testing of donor blood in hospitals became nearly universal in a very short time, and with that testing came a drastic reduction in post-transfusion hepatitis cases.
For his discovery of the Australia antigen, Blumberg received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976, sharing it with Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who was co-honored for his work on kuru.
More recently, Blumberg served from 1999 to 2002 as the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Ames Research Center. He remained involved with NASA as a Distinguished Scientist at the Astrobiology Institute and at NASA’s Lunar Science Institute.
Dr. Blumberg passed away on April 5, 2011, at the age of 85.
We were honored to have interviewed Dr. Blumberg, and we extend our condolences to his family. You may view the video segments of our interview with Dr. Blumberg in our video Gallery.