Baruch Samuel Blumberg Biography (1925-)

research physician

When Baruch Samuel Blumberg was notified on October 14, 1976 that he was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, he made a humorous andlow-key comment to the New York Times: "I'm especially pleased thatsomeone from Philadelphia won. It's appropriate in the Bicentennial year andmakes up in part for the Phillies not making it to the World Series." But there was nothing low-key about the research Blumberg had done to win the prize. In 1963 he had discovered a protein in the blood of Australian Aborigines,the so-called Australia antigen, which he determined to be part of the hepatitis B virus. This discovery has led to the introduction of blood screening programs as well as a successful vaccine against this disease, which has a mortality rate of up to 15 per cent.

Blumberg was born on July 28, 1925, in New York City, one of three children of Meyer Blumberg, a lawyer, and Ida Simonoff. After graduating in 1943 from Far Rockaway High School in Far Rockaway, New York, Blumberg enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to study physics at Union College in Schenectady, wherehe earned a B.S. in 1946, and then enrolled at Columbia University graduate school in physics and mathematics. But Blumberg had become more and more interested in medical and biochemical matters, and partly at his father's urging he entered Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1947. Four years later he earned his M.D. and completed his internship and residency at Bellevue and Presbyterian hospitals in New York. It was during this period that he met Jean Liebesman, another medical student, whom he married in 1954; they would have four children. Blumberg won a fellowship to Balliol College, Oxford University, in 1955, working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. His specific field of interest was hyaluronic acid, one of the major constituents of connective tissue, synovial fluid and the vitreous humor of the eyes. By 1957 he had earned his doctorate and was also hard at work on research which would later win him the Nobel Prize.

As a medical student working in Surinam (then Dutch Guiana), South America, Blumberg had become interested in the manner in which various ethnic groups respond to disease and infection. He began to ask himself a very simple question: why do some people get sick while others do not? It was this question thatincreasingly guided his work, even while at Oxford. Epidemiologists had already speculated that an answer to this question might lie in the blood, and more specifically in the variations of genetically reproduced proteins in the blood. To study such polymorphisms would necessitate a large variety of bloodsamples from around the world. Blumberg, on his return from England, took theperfect job for such research as chief of the geographic medicine and genetics section of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). From 1957 to 1964, histravels took him from Alaska, to Africa, the Pacific, South America, Europeand Australia. Often he journeyed to remote areas accompanied only by his blood drawing and testing equipment. It was during this time as well that Blumberg became interested in anthropology.

Soon Blumberg and former Balliol colleague Anthony C. Allison were studying blood samples from patients who had received multiple transfusions, such as hemophiliacs, focusing on the antigen/antibody connection. An antigen is the substance that causes the body to produce a chemical defense, or antibody, against a foreign substance. Their reasoning was that people who had received numerous transfusions might prove to be excellent test cases, producing antibodies other than those they had inherited. The serum of such patients would therefore provide a wide variety of antibody responses once they were tested against other serum samples. Blumberg hypothesized that antibodies created in theserum of hemophiliacs and other transfusion donors would react with unknownantigens in the homogeneous serum of donors from disparate geographic areas.

In 1963, the serum of a New York hemophiliac reacted with that of an Australian Aborigine, and Blumberg labeled the detected antigen the Australia antigen, Au. Initially he and other researchers thought Au, an antigen rare in NorthAmerica but prevalent in Asia and Africa, might be an indicator of leukemia, because it appeared in many patients suffering from that disease. Later research dealt with groups of patients with Down's syndrome , who also show a high incidence of the antigen.

In 1964 Blumberg left NIH for the Institute of Cancer Research of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where he accepted the position of associatedirector of clinical research. He continued his researches on the Australiaantigen, and in 1966 he discovered the link between Au and hepatitis B. A Down's patient who had previously tested negative for Au suddenly tested positive, and soon developed hepatitis, as did another with a sudden positive test for the antigen. Researchers in Japan and New York began a long series of controlled experiments which finally established the connection between hepatitisB and Au. That same year, the Australia antigen was identified as part of the B virus itself and was renamed HBsAg (hepatitis B virus antigen).

The first practical result of Blumberg's discovery of HBsAg was a blood testwhich he and others developed to detect and screen out hepatitis B carriers -- of which there are approximately one hundred million worldwide, and perhapsone million in the United States -- from blood donors, thereby securing a safe blood supply. As early as 1969, such screening was underway at blood banksworldwide. After the American Association of Blood Banks ordered all of itsmembers to use the hepatitis test in 1971, the incidence of hepatitis after transfusions dropped by 25 per cent. In the 1970s, Blumberg, along with IrvingMillman, developed a vaccine from the sera of patients with HBsAg which prevents hepatitis B infection. Since becoming commercially available in 1982, ithas been widely and successfully used, especially among high-risk professionals such as healthcare workers. Another spin-off from Blumberg's work is research indicating that chronic infection with hepatitis B virus may be a precursor of cancer of the liver, the most common form of cancer in males in partsof Asia, India and Africa. The discovery of a vaccine against the disease maytherefore reduce the risk of primary liver cancer. Mass vaccinations of newborns have been undertaken in some Asian and African nations to that effect.

Blumberg shared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1976 with Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek of the National Institute for Neurological Diseases, "fortheir discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and disseminationof infectious diseases." They shared the $160,000 stipend equally. This is only one of a plethora of awards and honors Blumberg has won. Others include the Eppger Prize from the University of Freiburg (1973), the Distinguished Achievement Award in Modern Medicine (1975), the Gairdner Foundation International Award (1975), the Governor's Award in the Sciences from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1988), and the Gold Medal Award from the Canadian Liver Foundation (1990).

In 1977 Blumberg became a professor of medicine and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania; soon thereafter he was named vice president of population oncology at the Fox Chase Institute in Philadelphia. He has continued hisresearches in antigen systems as well as his studies in a wide range of other fields, including virology, physics, history, anthropology and philosophy.With the advent of the AIDS epidemic, Blumberg's antigen/antibody research has taken on new importance. After a long and distinguished career at Fox Chase, Blumberg returned to Oxford as master of Balliol College, becoming, at 64,the first scientist and first American ever to hold that prestigious chair.

Blumberg, known to friends, family and colleagues as Barry, is an avid movie-goer and reader. He also plays squash and enjoys running, hiking, swimming, and canoeing, in addition to his hobbies of carpentry and photography.

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