Baruch S. Blumberg, MD, 1925-2011

Baruch Samuel_Blumberg by Tom TrowerGlenn Rall, a virologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, sent me the following note:

Baruch S. Blumberg, Nobel Laureate in 1976 for discovery of Hepatitis B (and the eventual development of the vaccine, which probably has saved hundreds of thousands of lives since its introduction), died this past Tuesday (4/5/11).  Barry did most of his work at Fox Chase, though he was an inspiration to many of us, and a catalyst for some tremendously exciting scientific conversations. He was active in science all through his life; in fact, just a few weeks ago, he gave a seminar at the Center, and on the morning of the day of his death, he gave a plenary lecture at a NASA meeting in California.  His HBV work was among the first truly translational studies, and his accomplishments are even more notable given that, when he made his major discoveries, he was neither  a cancer biologist nor a virologist.  For those podcast listeners or blog readers who might want to know more about him,  I would refer them to his autobiography from his Nobel acceptance, which I have appended. Our field has lost a creative scientist, a kind and supportive colleague, and a tireless advocate for basic research.

In the 1950s, Blumberg had begun studying variations in human populations by examining blood proteins. He had found a protein in the blood of Australian aborigines, which he called Australia antigen or Au, that was not present in Americans and Europeans. By 1966 he realized that individuals with the Au protein also had hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. The key to the function of this protein became apparent to Blumberg when serum from a patient in New Jersey became positive for the Au antigen. This finding was a surprise because the individual had previously tested negative for Au. At the same time, the patient developed hepatitis. The discovery lead to the identification of the hepatitis B virus particle, development of blood tests to eliminate the virus from the blood supply, and production of a vaccine to prevent infection. Because chronic hepatitis B frequently leads to carcinoma of the liver, the vaccine has prevented many cancer deaths.

I did not personally know Dr. Blumberg, but we have something in common besides virology: Columbia University. Dr. Blumberg obtained the MD degree in 1951 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which is where I have been doing virus research since 1982.

9 thoughts on “Baruch S. Blumberg, MD, 1925-2011”

  1. Jim, Smithfield, VA

    Prof Racaniello,

    Thank you for posting this. An incredible educational read. Dr Blumberg led such a wondrous life, and traveled almost as much as Prof Despommier.

    May I impose upon you to explain this section from the autobiography where he talks about Hepatitis B vaccine around half way through the article that seems to say the vaccine is made in the human host: “The vaccine was made from small HBV surface antigen particles, made in the liver cells of the human host guided by the surface antigen gene introduced by the virus. This was a unique method for producing a vaccine that had never been attempted before.”


    Smitfield, VA

  2. That statement refers to the fact that the first vaccine against
    hepatitis B virus, released in 1981, was actually produced from the
    serum of humans who were infected with the virus. The virus particles
    were purified from human serum, and then subjected to filtration and
    inactivation to ensure that no other adventitious agents were present.
    It was the first vaccine produced from human serum in this way – done
    so by Maurice Hilleman and colleagues at Merck. The vaccine was not
    extensively used because it was known to have been produced from human
    serum. It was replaced in 1986 by a recombinant protein produced in
    yeast by Chiron.


    Doctor Coffin at the NIH CFS meeting last week said, ‘We can’t address what’s going on with viruses and proteins of sequences that I don’t know of. If we get these sequences over of these other viruses to Genbank where people can look at them, then we can continue to do analysis’

    So there is one thing that has to be done now. The WPI’s isolates of XMRV & any other isolates they have found, need to be sequenced. I think it’s a priority and cannot wait any longer.

    Sequencing these isolates would reveal the true diversity of xmrv.

    The WPI has said before they have 500 isolates.

    Doctor John Coffin has data suggesting a recombination origin of XMRV in human tissue in mice in the mid 1990s. The XMRV he refers to reflects all the currently known XMRV isolates and if there are isolates that are different, they could have originated at a different time, before the 1990s.

    I have no idea why these isolates haven’t been sequenced, I have heard the WPI very much want this to happen. Perhaps its money as doing these kind of experiments is expensive.

    However, this can’t be put off any longer, people are suffering, XMRV is possibly in the blood supply and the government must fund this.
    It should be made the highest priority to get this work done.

    Maybe we need some kind of email action campaign, perhaps we need to contact the NIH and ask that they fund this important work.

    To me personally, it seems really crazy that this work hasn’t been done yet. There are millions of people suffering and yes this work is expensive, but no amount of money is too much for the value of a human life.

  4. You might want to ask WPI why they have not sequenced the 500 XMRV isolates in their possession. A sequencing run costs about $5, which gives 500 bases. At that rate it would cost $81 to sequence each entire genome, or $40,500 to sequence the whole lot. I was told by an NIH official that WPI has a $1.5 million grant to work on XMRV.

  5. H_epatitis B_lumberg V_irus and the Baruch Vaccine.
    That might help students to remember.
    RIP Dr Blumberg.

  6. Sad to hear the passing of a wonderful individual with great contributions to science; Sure wish there were more people like him in this world.

  7. That’s very sad to hear of his passing.
    It was only 4 months ago that I was taught about his work n HBV.

  8. That’s very sad to hear of his passing.
    It was only 4 months ago that I was taught about his work n HBV.

  9. Huh? What does this have to do with this article and why is this posted here? I have CFS and think some are going overboard and posting nonsense everywhere.

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