Baruch Blumberg, American physician, Died at 85

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Dead, Baruch Samuel Blumberg on April 5, 2011, he was an American physician, geneticist, and co-recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (with Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) for his work on the hepatitis B virus while an investigator at the NIH.

Born in Brooklyn, New York on July 28, 1925, the son of Ida (Simonoff) and Meyer Blumberg, a lawyer.

He first attended the Orthodox Yeshivah of Flatbush for elementary school, where he learned to read and write in Hebrew and to study the Bible and Jewish texts in their original language.

That school also had among its students a contemporary of Blumberg, Eric Kandel, who is another recipient of the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Blumberg then attended Far Rockaway High School in the early 1940s, a school that also produced fellow laureates Burton Richter and Richard Feynman.

Throughout the 1950s, Blumberg traveled the world taking human blood samples and studying the inherited variations in human beings, focusing on why some people contracted diseases in similar environments that others did not.

In 1964, while studying yellow jaundice, he discovered a surface antigen for hepatitis B in the blood of an Australian aborigine.

His work demonstrated that the virus could cause liver cancer.

Blumberg and his team were able to develop a screening test for the virus to prevent its spread in blood donations and developed a vaccine.

Blumberg later freely distributed his vaccine patent in order to promote its fielding by drug companies.

Deployment of the vaccine reduced the infection rate of hepatitis B in children in China from 15% to 1% in 10 years.

Blumberg and his colleagues at Fox Chase Cancer Center promptly developed sensitive blood tests that allow blood banks to screen for hepatitis B and prevent transfusion-related cases.

They also devised a new way to make a vaccine against the virus, harvesting its outer protein from the blood of chronic carriers.

This approach was critical to the development of a hepatitis B vaccine at that time, since the virus itself could not be grown in tissue cultures until Fox Chase researchers invented a new technique in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, in field trips to Africa and elsewhere, Blumberg and others were amassing important evidence of the link between primary liver cancer and hepatitis B.

The virus is now thought to cause at least 80 percent of liver cancers as well as many cases of cirrhosis.

Ongoing research includes efforts to develop a drug active against chronic hepatitis B and genetic studies to further refine risk factors for the development of liver cancer following chronic hepatitis infection.

Currently focused on genetic susceptibility among Native American populations in Alaska, these population studies bring the research full circle to Blumberg’s goals when he initially discovered the hepatitis B virus.

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