(May 23, 1923 - April 17, 2012)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1969
Worked to Develop Both the Blood Test and Vaccine for Hepatitis B
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.
Hepatitis B is a serious viral disease of the liver, which is caused by a virus. It is more commonly referred to as HBV (Hep B Virus). The acute form of the disease may last only a matter of weeks, but for some it can 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. But for a lot of people, there are no symptoms at all. There is also a more serious form of acute hepatitis B, known as fulminant hepatitis, that is life threatening.
Some of those infected with acute hepatitis B recover and are fine. But for others, the disease becomes a chronic 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 highly infectious and spreads 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 can pass 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.
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. They 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.
Today in 2021, there are still 30 million new cases of hepatitis B each year worldwide. It is still a scary disease since half the time those infected show no symptoms and there is still no cure. Many of those infected will end up as part of the current 300 million people with chronic hepatitis B. Over 800,000 people will die this year from hepatitis B. This is why it is so important for children to be vaccinated – with no cure, prevention is the best solution. The vaccination is highly effective and can provide lifetime protection.
To illustrate how infectious hepatitis B is, infants born of an infected mother need to get the vaccine within 24 hours. If they are not vaccinated, 90% of them become infected. 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. The vaccines is 95% effective and is now part of every child’s vaccination program.
Lives Saved: Over 15,000,000
Born to a Russian Jewish immigrant family in New York, Millman served in the US Army in Europe during World War II where he earned a Bronze Star.
Bachelor of Science at New York's City College
Masters in Virology at the University of Kentucky
PhD in Microbiology at Northwestern University
Nobel Prize winner, Baruch Blumberg on developing the Hepatitis B vaccine:
Perhaps the most important factor was the arrival of Irving Millman in our laboratory in June of 1967.
Vaccines are Ubiquitous & Omnipresent Throughout Our Lives
It is bizarre that vaccines are controversial, when virtually everyone has had vaccines. The average person born today may get 70+ vaccines in their lifetime.
- There are 31 childhood vaccines (counting booster shots). Over 90% of people have received some of these vaccines.
Virtually everyone constantly benefits from vaccines
- Did you know that all beef, poultry, and pork you eat comes from vaccinated animals?
- And that all horses, dogs, cats, and zoo animals are vaccinated?
- Who wants to live in a world where you can’t pet your friends’ dog because it may not have been vaccinated, and may have rabies?
Fox Chase Cancer Center Article on Millman