This year, at my own suggestion, I got the book ‘Hepatitis B. The hunt for a killer virus.’ by Baruch Blumberg as a birthday present. Blumberg was the central figure in the discovery of the hepatitis B virus and was rewarded for his achievements by a Nobel prize in 1976. The principal content of the book is an account of the story leading up to the discovery. In fact the subtitle is a bit misleading since Blumberg was not hunting for a virus when he started the research which eventually led to it being found. He was interested in polymorphisms, differences in humans (and animals) which lead them to have different susceptibilities to certain diseases. Nowadays this would be done by comparing genes but at that time, before the modern developments in molecular biology, it was necessary to compare proteins. This was done by observing that antibodies in the blood of some individuals reacted with proteins in the blood of others. This is a mild version of what happens when someone gets a transfusion with an incompatible blood group.
Blumberg did a lot of work with blood coming from people living in unusual or extreme conditions. For this he travelled to exotic places such as Suriname, northern Alaska and remote parts of Nigeria. He seems to have had a great appetite for exciting travel and a corresponding dose of courage. He has plenty of adventures to relate. The second protein he found he names the ‘Australia antigen’ since it was common among aborigines. A good source of antibodies was the blood of people who had had many blood transfusions since their immune systems had been confronted with many antigens. In particular they often carried the Australia antigen.
Pursuing the nature of the Australia antigen led to the realization that it was part of the hepatitis B virus, a virus which causes liver disease and can be spread by blood contact, in particular blood transfusions. The transfusion recipients had become infected with hepatitis B and had produced antibodies to it. Hepatitis B was the first hepatitis virus to be discovered and so why is it labelled ‘B’? In fact people had noticed cases of hepatitis after tranfusions and suspected two viruses, ‘A’ transmitted by contaminated food or water and ‘B’ transmitted by blood contact. There were researchers who had been ‘hunting’ intensively for these viruses and many of them were understandibly not happy when an outsider beat them to it.
For many years Blumberg worked at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. It was generously funded and the fact that his research had little obvious relation to cancer was not a problem. Once the director of the institute warned that a serious funding cut might be coming. This led Blumberg and colleagues to the idea of developing a vaccine against hepatitis B as a way of making money. Just as Blumberg had not been a virologist when he discovered the virus he was not an expert on vaccines when he developed the vaccine. At that time the need for a vaccine did not seem so urgent since hepatitis B was known as an acute disease which was rarely life-threatening. Later the vaccine acquired a very different significance. There are very many chronic carriers (hundreds of millions worldwide) and a significant proportion of these develop liver cancer after many years. Thus, surprisingly, the hepatitis B vaccine has attained the status of an ‘anti-cancer vaccine’ and has had a huge medical impact.
This book has a very different flavour from the book of Francois Jacob I wrote about in a previous post. Blumberg gives the impression of being a highly cultured person but more than that of an adventurer and man of action. (Along the way he was Master of Balliol College Oxford and director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.) Jacob also had enough adventures but appears to belong to a more intellectual type, concentrating more on his inner life. In his book Blumberg does not reveal too much which is really personal and always maintains a certain distance to the reader.