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(May 23, 1923 - )
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1969
His Hepatitis B Vaccine Saves Over 6 Million Lives
Irving Millman, while working at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, teamed with Baruch Blumberg on a critical project. Blumberg had identified the antigen responsible for causing hepatitis B and was now pursuing a vaccine. Millman's understanding of microbiology made him the perfect partner. The pair developed the first vaccine against hepatitis B, a potentially deadly liver disease. The vaccine has proven to be tremendously effective, protecting over 90 percent of those vaccinated, and is credited with saving over 6 million lives.
Hepatitis B is a serious viral disease of the liver, which is caused by a virus in the genus Orthohepadnavirus and the family Hepadnaviridae. It is more commonly referred to as HBV for obvious reasons. The acute form of the disease may last only a matter of weeks, but it can also cause a chronic illness that lasts a lifetime. In the acute phases, the symptoms include yellowing skin and eyes (jaundice), extreme fatigue, dark urine, nausea and vomiting, and abdominal pain. It may take as long as a year to fully recover from the symptoms of acute hepatitis B. There is also a more serious form of acute hepatitis B, known as fulminant hepatitis, that is life threatening. The chronic form of the disease is lifelong infection of the liver. The liver is an essential organ, responsible for filtering toxins out of the blood, helping absorb nutrients, and producing substances that fight off infections. Chronic hepatitis B can lead to several critical complications, including cirrhosis of the liver. This is a hardening and scarring of the liver tissue, often associated with alcoholism. Cirrhosis eventually causes a complete inability of the liver to perform its function. The only treatment currently known for liver failure is a transplant. Hepatitis B may also lead to liver cancer. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected individual, through sex, blood transfusions, the exchange of contaminated needles among drug users, and passed from mother to child at birth. It is also a major threat to health care workers. The hepatitis B virus is over 50 times more infectious than HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), and worldwide there are an estimated two billion infected people. Where the hepatitis B vaccine is available, it has been 95 percent effective in preventing the disease.
Millman and Blumberg teamed to complete two critical tasks in the development of the hepatitis B vaccine. Building on Blumberg's discovery of the antigen that causes hepatitis B, the pair drew on a fascinating aspect of the virus in creating their vaccine. They found that carriers of the hepatitis B virus had large quantities of particles in their blood that contained only the outside coating of the virus. This was a crucial advantage in the development of the vaccine, as this coating, known as hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), was non-infectious. But, the HbsAg was capable of producing an immune response - a true irony, in that those infected carried both the active virus and the means of protection within their bloodstream. The key now was to separate the coatings from the active virus, so the vaccine could be developed. Millman and Blumberg did just that, and then treated the serum to assure no active virus remained. Their discovery paved the way for the mass production of the vaccine, which has been used effectively among health care workers and other high-risk populations. Millman also devised another critical methodology in the fight against hepatitis B: a blood test to detect hepatitis B infections in blood samples. This test became the first available to screen blood donations, which had been a primary source of hepatitis B infections. Following the standardization of Millman's screening, in 1971, the incidence of hepatitis B following blood transfusions fell by 25 percent.
The hepatitis B vaccine developed by Millman and Blumberg has not only helped save millions of lives, it was also a medical first. As hepatitis B is associated with the development of liver cancer, the vaccine was the first to combat a major form of cancer.
Introduction by Tim Anderson
Table of ContentsIntroduction
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Key Experiment or Research
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The Science Behind the Discovery
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Invent Now Hall of Fame profile:
Hepatitis B Foundation article referencing Millman's research:
Book Rags biography on Blumberg, referencing Millman's contribution to the research:
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The Science Behind the Discovery
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