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Leaders in Innovation

How Irving Millman Helped Develop the Hepatitis B Vaccine

With help from co-inventor and fellow NIHF Inductee Baruch S. Blumberg, Irving Millman developed a vaccine for hepatitis B, an infection that can lead to severe effects to the liver including scarring, cancer and failure to the organ.

Read below to learn more about the worldwide impact of Millman’s discovery.


Early Career

Irving Millman was born on May 23, 1923, and raised in New York City. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1948 from City College, a master’s degree in 1951 from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate in 1954 from the Northwestern University Medical School. It was at Northwestern that Millman began his career by conducting research on a tuberculosis vaccine.

Following this position, Millman worked at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research, the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York and Armour & Co. In 1967 he began working at the Fox Chase Cancer Center as an immunologist.


Discovering the Hepatitis B Vaccine

At the Fox Chase Cancer Center, Millman joined a team led by Blumberg, who had spent the past decade working to identify and isolate the hepatitis B virus and develop a vaccine.

As the only immunologist on the team, Millman’s contributions proved invaluable and according to Blumberg, his arrival at the laboratory was “perhaps the most important factor” to the success of the team.

According to W. Thomas London, an internist and endocrinologist who also worked on the hepatitis B research, Millman discovered a method to separate the hepatitis B virus from a sample of human blood, purify and then destroy it by means of heat or chemical application.

Additionally, Millman created a screening test that enabled the detection of hepatitis B in blood donor samples. This development proved crucial because it enabled blood collection agencies to identify the very contagious virus and prevent contaminated blood donations from being used. After this screening test became a standard practice in 1971, the number of people who contracted hepatitis B after receiving a blood transfusion decreased by 25%.

Together with Blumberg, Millman was able to exploit a unique property of the virus that proved essential in developing the vaccine. After thorough analysis, the team realized that for those suffering from hepatitis B, components of the virus’ outer coating were also present. Known as “hepatitis B surface antigen,” the researchers realized that injecting the coating into an individual produces antibodies. By separating the antigens from the blood of chronic hepatitis B patients, the team was able to produce the vaccine they had been searching for.


A Global Impact

Since the vaccine became commercially available in 1982, more than 1 billion people worldwide have received the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine’s impact proved to be so profound that according to the Washington Post, the average human life span “may have increased by several months” since its introduction and widespread availability.

Today, the hepatitis B vaccine is often one of the first vaccines given to babies, as the virus can spread with relative ease between mother and child during birth. As the hepatitis B vaccine protects against liver cancer, it has also been called “the first cancer vaccine.”


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