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Baruch Blumberg

(1925 - 2011)


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Baruch Samuel Blumberg was a Jewish American doctor and recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Blumberg (born July 28, 1925; died April 5, 2011) was born in in New York City. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Navy and finished college under military sponsorship and left active duty in 1946. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Physics on the First (Columbia) Division at Bellevue Hospital in lower New York. For the next two years, he spent as a Clinical Fellow in Medicine at Columbia Presbyterian at Union College New York and, in 1946, he entered Columbia University for mathematical graduate studies. In 1947, he enrolled in The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

From 1951 to 1953, Blumberg worked as an assistant resident Medical Center working in the Arthritis Division. From 1955 to 1957, he was a graduate student at the Department of Biochemistry at Oxford University, England, and a member of Balliol College. From 1957 to 1964 he worked at the National Institutes of Health. In 1964, he transferred to the Institute of Cancer Research.

He received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with D. Carleton Gajdusek, for “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases.” Blumberg identified the Hepatitis B virus, and later developed the diagnostic test and vaccine for it.

The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Blumberg's work:

Baruch Blumberg was trained as a geneticist and studied the variation between certain types of proteins occurring in the blood of different individuals. In connection with these studies he found the presence of a unique protein in the serum of a patient with hemophilia, who had received several transfusions, in tests against a serum collected from an Australian aborigin. This protein was called Australia antigen and was first suspected to be some kind of serum protein. However, during the years of 1966-68 Blumberg could prove that Australia antigen only appeared in connection with and in some cases after the special form of jaundice caused by infectious agents (hepatitis) which previously had been named inoculation or serum hepatitis. This disease today is called hepatitis B. It was known since about 1940 that there are two forms of hepatitis. Besides hepatitis B there occurs one infectious form, which today is called hepatitis A. Blumberg's discovery of Australia antigen was the starting point for an enormous development over a decade of our knowledge concerning hepatitis B infections. This development is impressive not the least with regard to the fact that the virus causing the disease still today can not be cultivated under laboratory conditions. This is normally assumed to be a prerequisite for the characterization of an infectious agent and the disease process which it may cause. Since his original discovery Blumberg has continued to be the leading figure within the field of hepatitis research. Important new knowledge within this field can be summarized in the following way:

Australia antigen, now called HBs-antigen (s for surface) has been shown to represent the outmost structure of the virus, which causes hepatitis B infections However, HBs-antigen normally occurs in serum as a small, independing particle without infectious activity. Hepatitis B virus represents a completely new group of viruses and distinguishes itself distinctly from the infectious agent causing hepatitis A.

Different variants of HBs-antigen have been shown to occur which has allowed important epidemiological studies. It has been clarified that e g the epidemic occurring among cross country runners in Sweden in the beginning of the 1960ies was caused by a type of hepatitis B virus, which distinguishes itself from the virus which during the last decade has circulated among drug abusers.

The infectious process in individuals, who have become infected has been shown to take one of several different courses. After either a symptomless infection or the appearance of clear-cut disease 60 to 160 days after infection the virus normally is removed from the organism. However about 10 % of all hospitalized patients in industrialized countries acquire a persistent (chronic) infection. This implies that in the society as a whole about 0.1% of all individuals are carriers of a hepatitis B virus infection. For unknown reasons the corresponding figure for certain developing countries is much higher, about 1 to 15 %. It has been estimated that in the whole world there is more than 100 million people who are chronically infected with hepatitis B virus.

These persons represent an important source for further spreading of the virus. It is known since a long time that transmission of the virus can occur in connection with different medical treatments e g blood transfusions. More recent data show that under certain circumstances also oral and genital transmission may occur and further that a pregnant woman may transmit the infection to her fetus. However, not all individuals who are chronically infected with hepatitis B virus are contagious.

Many carriers do not produce a complete infectious virus. By use of modern techniques it has been possible to distinguish those who are contagious and those who are not. Carriers who have a contagious form of the persistent infection show signs of liver damage, which may occasionally be of a serious nature, whereas other carriers appear healthy.

Today all blood donors are examined to determine a possible occurrence of a persistent hepatitis B virus infection. By elimination of all detectable carriers the frequency of hepatitis caused by blood transfusion has been reduced with at least 25%. The fact that the reduction is not still greater partly is due to that besides hepatitis A and B, there appears to be still another form of hepatitis for which the designation C has been proposed.

Regular gamma globulin efficiently prevents the occurrence of hepatitis A infections, but does not have any effect on hepatitis B virus infections. By the availability of new test methods for hepatitis B virus and antibodies against this virus it is today possible to select blood donors for preparation of a special gamma globulin containing a high concentration of antibodies against hepetitis B virus. During recent years it has been shown that this type of specific gamma globulin gives an efficient protection against hepatitis B virus infections. Thus possibilities are now available to eliminate a disease which hitherto has caused considerable problems within many sectors of medical care, e g in kidney dialysis departments and transplantation units.

The occurrence of healthy individuals who produce large quantities of non-infectious hepatitis B virus products has allowed possibilities for the development of a completely new type of vaccine. The production of this vaccine is not based on virus produced in the laboratory but instead on the purification of virus products derived from serum of patients with a persistent hepatitis B virus infection. A vaccine of this kind has been shown to protect against hepatitis B virus infections in chimpanzees and recently also in humans.


Sources: Nobelprize.org, Nobel Prize Autobiography

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