Creator of vaccine dies
Published: Monday, April 30, 2012
Updated: Monday, April 30, 2012 17:04
Microbiologist Irving Millman, who worked toward the creation of a vaccine to protect against hepatitis B, passed on April 17th of natural causes in Washington.
In addition to creating the vaccine, Dr. Millman also helped to bring about safer testing for hepatitis B that lowered the risk of infection from blood transfusions.
Born on May 23, 1923, Millman’s career spanned 50 years. The development of the vaccine was his crowning achievement.
The New York City native began his illustrious career in the CUNY system. He graduated from City College in 1948 before continuing onto the University of Kentucky. There he received his master’s degree in virology before finally completing his doctorate in microbiology from the Northwestern University Medical School.
But Dr. Milliman’s exploits were not only limited to academic pursuits. During World War II he served in Company D, Seventh Armored Infantry Battalion, Eighth Armored Division, where he earned the Bronze Star for his bravery in ground operations.
Dr. Milliman’s vaccine discovery was revolutionary, answering one of the major health problems of the early twentieth century. Hepatitis B is viral infection that attacks the liver. It is transmitted through contact with the blood and is potentially life threatening if not treated. In fact according to the World Health Organization, one third of the world has been infected with the disease at one point in their lives.
The vaccine developed by Dr. Millman and his partner at the time Baruch S. Blumberg, is the first vaccine administered to newborns—an important achievement for the fight against hepatitis B, because it is known to spread from the mother to the child during birth.
“It was nothing short of providential”, wrote Blumberg, in a biographical account written for the Nobel committee, “the vaccine was effective in newborns because, in time, when the vaccine became available in commercial quantities […] extensive vaccination programs could be launched that protected even the children of carrier mothers from the development later in life of chronic liver disease and primary cancer of the liver.”
During his research, Dr. Millman was on a team at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia studying the causes of hepatitis. Led by Dr. Blumberg, who went on to receive the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for identifying the hepatitis B virus.
Once Dr. Millman’s blood test became common in blood banks, infections through transfusions fell 25 percent.
In order to develop the vaccine, Millman and Blumberg took advantage of a peculiar characteristic of the virus. Those with a relatively high number of the virus tend to carry not only the virus, but particles free flowing particles from the virus’ exterior.
These particles are known as hepatitis B surface antigen, and they do not cause any disease. Because they remain foreign to the body however, they provoke an immune response, enabling the immune system to “learn” how to fight the disease by identifying and remembering what specific antigens are on the surface of the hepatitis B virus and facilitating a fast immune response. Creating healthier generations of Americans.