Baruch Blumberg dies
The virologist identified the hepatitis B virus and saved millions of lives by helping to develop the vaccine against it
Baruch "Barry" Blumberg, a multifaceted researcher who shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology
for his work on infectious viral diseases, died on Tuesday (April 5) of an apparent heart attack while attending a conference on astrobiology in California. He was 85 years old.
|Blumberg celebrating the news of|
his Nobel Prize in 1976 with his wife Jean.
Image: Courtesy of the Fox Chase Cancer Center
Blumberg identified the hepatitis B virus (HBV) in the 1960s -- long before the advent of genomic sequencing and DNA sequencing technology -- travelling for years to collect blood samples from different ethnic groups around the globe. His journeys led him to Australia where, in the blood of an aborigine, he found what he'd later identify as the surface antigen of the virus. Blumberg would go on to help develop diagnostic tests and a vaccine that would drastically reduce the spread of hepatitis B, a debilitating liver disease. Chronic hepatitis B infection is also known to cause liver cancer.
"It's a big loss," linkurl:Jonathan Chernoff,;http://www.fccc.edu/research/pid/chernoff/ chief scientific officer at the Fox Chase Cancer Center (where Blumberg worked for most of his career), said of his colleague's death. "Barry probably was responsible for preventing more cancers than any scientist that ever lived. He was doing what we now call translational medicine long before people had created that term."
Blumberg's work with hepatitis B was just the first triumph in a long and varied scientific career. Fitting for a man who would become renowned for crossing disciplinary boundaries to go where his curiosity and intellect led him, Blumberg was not even a virologist at the time he identified the virus. Completing his undergraduate degree in physics, the World War II veteran pursued a graduate degree in mathematics from Columbia University before switching to medicine.
Late in med school, Blumberg traveled with his parasitology professor, Harold Brown, to a remote village in northern Surinam, where they cared for an array of local ethnic groups, including native South Americans, Africans, Chinese, Javanese, and Jews descended from 17th century migrants to Brazil. Blumberg noticed that each group responded differently to pathogens in the environment, an insight that would lead him to the hepatitis B antigen years later and form the topic of his first published research paper, which explored the variation in the response to infection by the roundworm that causes elephantiasis.
After completing his medical degree and working at several hospitals in his native New York City, Blumberg traveled to the United Kingdom in 1955 to earn a PhD in biochemistry at Oxford University. Afterwards, Blumberg returned to the United States and took a research position at the National Institutes of Health, where he worked for eight years, before relocating to Philadelphia in 1964 to help start a program in clinical research at what is now the Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Fox Chase served Blumberg's home base as he traveled the world studying different ethnic groups from the Canadian Arctic to Sub-Saharan Africa searching for the key to the differences in responses to infectious disease. During this time, Blumberg also amassed collaborators that spanned the globe, from Scandinavia and Europe to India and China.
"He was a great adventurer," said Anna Marie Skalka
, a virologist and basic science director emeritus at Fox Chase who interacted often with Blumberg. "He had a passion for trying to understand the genetic difference between populations that lead to their difference in susceptibility to disease."
Blumberg's discovery of the HBV antigen initially met with resistance because he was not a known hepatitis researcher at the time. The Annals of Internal Medicine even rejected his first attempt to publish the work in 1967. But soon other groups corroborated his findings, and Blumberg's pioneering research was recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1976 with the prize in Medicine or Physiology. By that time, he had already started to develop diagnostic tests for hepatitis B and a vaccine that would later prevent HBV infection in millions of people around the world. He had also postulated that the virus was a primary cause of liver cancer.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Blumberg continued to study HBV after winning the Nobel Prize, becoming somewhat of a scientific ambassador by sharing his knowledge of HBV with researchers in China, Japan, India, and West Africa.
"He certainly was someone who was full of scientific and intellectual adventure," said Drexel university virologist linkurl:Timothy Block,;http://www.ihvr.org/scientists/faculty/block.htm president of the Hepatitis B Foundation and Blumberg's close friend and mentee. "The consummate intellectual, the consummate thinker."
Later in his career, Blumberg took a position at Stanford University teaching courses in medical anthropology. While in California, Blumberg attended a workshop on astrobiology at NASA's Ames Research Center. Later NASA would ask him to be the founding director of its Astrobiology Institute, which sought to answer questions about the origins of life on Earth and whether life existed elsewhere in the universe.
Block recalled his surprise at hearing that Blumberg had taken the new position at NASA, which he held from 1999-2002. "Why are you doing that?" Block asked Blumberg. "I thought we were working on something big. He said something like, 'Tim, I'm working on the origin of life in the universe. Isn't that big enough for you?'"
In addition to his rich scientific career, Blumberg was also the president of the American Philosophical Society. Pat McPherson
, the society's executive officer, said that Blumberg's absence from the organization will be sorely felt. "He was one the most intellectually curious people that I've known," she said. "Everything interested Barry."
A tireless worker, Blumberg died of a heart attack earlier this week in the midst of the International Lunar Research Park Exploratory Workshop being held in the NASA Ames Conference Center in California. He is survived by his wife Jean, his four children, and nine grandchildren.
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