Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Baruch Blumberg who discovered the hepatitis B virus

A NASA portrait of Dr. Baruch Blumberg in 1999. Image credit: NASA/Tom Trower

Baruch Samuel Blumberg, like Barack Obama, was called Barry by his friends. In 1976 he received the Nobel Prize for saving millions of lives by discovering the cause of hepatitis B, a plague that had afflicted mankind since time immemorial.

Born in Brooklyn in 1925, he came from a family that had emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. He was educated in New York, contemplated studying physics, but was advised by his professor that he lacked the specific intellectual skill to be successful in that field. On the recommendation of his father he entered medical school at Columbia University. He graduated in 1951, became an intern and resident for four years at Bellevue Hospital, and then went to Oxford where he received a doctoral degree in biochemistry in 1957. Back in the United States, he took a job as a scientific investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1964 he moved to the Institute of Cancer Research in Philadelphia, where he spent his entire academic life, with breaks for scientific trips abroad and a later academic appointment as Master of Balliol College in Oxford.1

His research interests stemmed from an early fascination with the tropics, a wanderlust, and a desire to travel and see the world. Living in New York, he had been impressed by how groups of humans could be so different from one another in their eyes, their skin, and their susceptibility to diseases such as tuberculosis. No doubt some infirmities are acquired from the environment. But many traits are clearly inherited and due to genetic polymorphism—alleles or variants of genes present on one locus of a chromosome. The human blood groups would fall into this category, also the susceptibility to develop sickle-cell disease, a trait retained most interestingly because the heterozygous form (i.e. having only one variant of the hemoglobin molecule) offers a survival advantage by conferring resistance to malaria.

Blumberg’s interest was to study such genetic polymorphisms. These were traditionally investigated by descriptive and epidemiological means but research was transformed in the 1950s by the introduction of new laboratory techniques. Thus, gel electrophoresis, developed in 1955, would allow investigators to separate and identify as many as twenty or even more different proteins in any one person. Using this technique, Blumberg was able to look at many populations including Basques, Nigerians, and Arctic Inuit. It was then, while studying subjects who had received many blood transfusions, that he found to his surprise an electrophoretic band that looked quite different from others he had seen before.

Blumberg and his team followed their intuition to study this particular antigen. They rarely found it in the United States but more often in Asia and Africa, eastern and southern Europe, the South Pacific, and in Australian aborigines. They called it the Australia antigen, suspecting at first that it was an inherited protein antigen originating from the blood of the donors. They followed up with studies of blood transfusion recipients, inmates of mental institutions, Hansen’s disease colonies, and other selected populations in Africa and the Philippines. When a patient turned Australia antigen positive from negative as he developed clinical hepatitis, their suspicions were confirmed. They had indeed found the cause of the disease and the answer to a riddle that had long perplexed the medical scientific community.

The discovery of the virus revolutionized the field of hepatitis. Over the next decades a series of remarkable discoveries and advances followed. The virus was isolated and its structure understood. Its various antigens, surface, and core were delineated, and its relation to liver cancer reemphasized. Soon a vaccine was developed, there came better diagnostic tests, and the discovery of the viruses causing hepatitis A, C, and D. Dr. Blumberg received many honors. He died in 2011. His work exemplifies how advances in science can be achieved by disciplined and intuitive thinking, a willingness to accept change in the face of new evidence, and a single-minded determination to persevere despite obstacles and disappointments.

Most of the material in this article was obtained from Dr. Blumberg’s book Hepatitis B, published by Princeton University Press, 2002.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

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