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(July 28, 1925 - April 5, 2011)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1969
Discovered Test and Treatment for Deadly Liver Infection
When a keen mind encounters a surprising set of facts, the most amazing things occur. Baruch Blumberg is a prime example of applying the wisdom bought with years of experience to a set of unexpected data. While in medical school, Blumberg spent time in Moengo, Suriname, an isolated mining town in Northern South America that was accessible only by river. He provided a variety of medical services to the natives and also completed the first malaria survey in the region. It was during this field trip that Blumberg first became interested in the impact of inherited traits on the susceptibility to disease, a line of study he pursued throughout his career. Years later, while collecting blood samples from around the world, Blumberg discovered the "Australian antigen", the antigen responsible for causing hepatitis B. Two years later he and Irving Millman created the hepatitis B vaccine.
Hepatitis B is a serious viral disease of the liver, which is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). The acute form of the hepatitis B may last only a matter of weeks, but hepatitis B can also cause chronic illness that lasts a lifetime. The liver is an essential organ, responsible for filtering toxins out of the blood, helping absorb nutrients, and producing substances that fight off infections. This deadly disease 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, or it can be passed from mother to child at birth. The hepatitis B virus is over 50 times more infectious than HIV, 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.
The seeds of Blumberg's fascination with inherited traits are deeply rooted in Suriname. It's there that he observed a significant variation in people's response to the parasitic worm that causes elephantiasis. He later traveled the world to collect blood samples from natives in remote areas to assess the impact of inherited traits on a person's susceptibility to disease. Blumberg developed a unique method to test the blood samples he acquired: he used hemophiliac patients. His reasoning was really quite brilliant. He knew hemophiliacs would have been exposed to blood serum proteins they themselves had not inherited through their multiple blood transfusions. This would cause their body to produce more antibodies than an average patient. In effect, the hemophiliacs acted as reservoirs of the blood properties of many individuals, allowing Blumberg to produce a wide array of antibodies to use in testing the collected samples. It was a match between a New York hemophiliac and an Australian aborigine that proved to be the breakthrough. The "Australian antigen" was identified and, through further study, it proved to be responsible for producing hepatitis B. It was when Blumberg's keen mind encountered the surprising data that the amazing occurred. Though Blumberg was only studying the impact of inherited traits, and was not looking for hepatitis B, he was ready. His years of training and discipline prepared him, and within two years the world had its first vaccine to fight the deadly effects of hepatitis B.
It seems fitting that Blumberg, while in his seventies, continued to explore. This time the exploration took place while he served as the Senior Advisor for Biology to the Administrator of NASA. Apparently not satisfied with having traveled to the ends of the earth, Blumberg may have felt drawn to a program whose motto was "Life beyond its planet of origin." While at NASA, Blumberg studied the impact of space travel on human health.
Introduction by Tim Anderson
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