How Baruch Blumberg Helped Develop the Life-Saving Hepatitis B Vaccine

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How Baruch Blumberg Helped Develop the Life-Saving Hepatitis B Vaccine

As co-inventor of the hepatitis B vaccine, 1993 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Baruch Blumberg has contributed to both saving and improving the lives of millions of people around the world.

 

Pursuing a Passion for Medicine

Baruch Samuel Blumberg was born on July 28, 1925, in Brooklyn, New York. Not long after graduating from Far Rockaway High School in Brooklyn in 1943, he joined the U.S. Navy to fight in World War I. While enlisted, he was promoted to the position of executive officer of one ship and became the captain of another. 

After the war ended, he attended Union College in Schenectady, New York and received a bachelor’s degree in 1946. He then enrolled in Columbia University in New York City, and on the recommendation of his father, decided to transfer to the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons where he studied medicine.

“I enjoyed my four years at the college immensely,” Blumberg said in remarks given to the Nobel Foundation. “There was a strong emphasis on basic science and research in the first two years (we hardly saw a patient till our third year), and we learned practical applications only in our last years.”

Blumberg’s interest and passion for medicine continued to grow and after receiving his medical degree in 1951, he spent two years working as a clinical fellow, researching biochemistry in the Arthritis Division of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He completed his education in 1957, receiving a doctorate in biochemistry from Balliol College, Oxford.

 

Discovering an Antigen 

In the early 1950s, Blumberg became interested in the genetics of disease, and how inherited traits had the ability to make “different groups of people more or less susceptible to the same disease.” This curiosity led him to travel around the world to collect blood samples from Indigenous populations.

In 1963, while working with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he and a colleague discovered, in the blood serum of a patient that was later determined (in 1967) to be a component of a virus that causes hepatitis B, a deadly liver infection that at the time, had no cure.

Blumberg continued this research while working at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, teaming up with fellow NIHF Inductee Irving Millman. Together, they discovered that people suffering from hepatitis B also had antigens and realized that injecting them into a patient produces antibodies. Separating the antigens from the blood of chronic hepatitis B patients led to the coveted vaccine they had spent years developing.

 

A World-Changing Discovery

For the contributions made toward the discovery of the hepatitis B vaccine, Blumberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976. Today, the hepatitis B vaccine is often one of the first vaccines babies receive shortly after birth. Since it became commercially available in 1982, more than 1 billion people worldwide have received the vaccine.

In addition to being considered as the first cancer vaccine for its ability to protect against liver cancer, the impact of the hepatitis B vaccine worldwide has been so profound, that according to the Washington Post, the average human life span “may have increased several months” since its introduction and global availability.

 

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