Innovators who Paved the Way for Modern Vaccines

By on May 16, 2013
Cell Culture Based Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Approved by the FDA

Maurice Hilleman – Measles, Mumps, Rubella

I read a great article the other day that I felt needed to be shared. The article is about the incredible work of Dr. Maurice Hilleman, vaccine pioneer and inventor of the current measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The article “A Forgotten Pioneer of Vaccines,” appeared in the New York Times and described Hilleman’s accomplished career. While many people have probably never heard of him, Hilleman’s significant achievements have touched almost all of us. According to the New York Times article, “95 percent of American children receive the M.M.R. vaccine.” Hilleman’s contributions don’t stop there, “At Dr. Hilleman’s death in 2005, other researchers credited him with having saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century. Over his career, he devised or substantially improved more than 25 vaccines, including 9 of the 14 now routinely recommended for children,” according to the New York Times

Despite the work of Dr. Hilleman and others who created vaccines to protect us from many sicknesses that used to ravage entire populations, there are still regular outbreaks of these preventable illnesses. The New York Times article references, the Europe measles outbreak in 2011, where measles sickened 26,000 and killed 9. Also in 2011, there was an outbreak of pertussis, or “whooping cough,” in California. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the reported cases of pertussis were up 418% from 2009 to 2010.

This year there has been a measles outbreak in Wales, UK and mumps outbreaks occurring at two Universities – University of Richmond and Loyola University, Maryland.

These outbreaks are reminders of the great gifts that Dr. Hilleman and other pioneers have given us through the use of vaccines and are a small glimpse of what life would be like for all of us without them. To that end, I thought it would be a good time to remember other vaccine pioneers.

Edward Jenner – Smallpox

Edward Jenner, known as “the father of immunology,” developed the first vaccine (against smallpox) in 1796. Jenner noticed that individuals who had become infected with cowpox seemed to show resistance to becoming infected with smallpox. To test this theory, Jenner inoculated an 8-year-old boy using cowpox material from a cowpox blister. He then exposed the boy to smallpox multiple times and the boy never became ill. News of Jenner’s success spread quickly and over the next 150 years, the smallpox vaccine and vaccination process was perfected. While smallpox became rare rapidly in developed countries, in the developing world it still raged in the 1960’s. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) made eradication a main priority and instituted a process of wide scale vaccinations and outbreak containment. In 1977, the last wild smallpox case was reported in Somalia and in 1980 smallpox was declared officially eradicated.

Louis Pasteur – Rabies

Louis Pasteur, in addition to his significant work in food safety, developed the rabies vaccine in 1885.

Jonas Salk – Polio

Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in the 1950’s and subsequently polio was declared eliminated from the Americas in 1994.

The Future Pioneers

To say that vaccines have made a huge impact on our health and wellness is an understatement. According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, “In the U.S., the recommended immunization series prevents approximately 33,000 deaths each year.” Today there are vaccines for more than 20 infectious diseases and receiving vaccinations has become a normal childhood activity in the developed world. Vaccines protect all of us, but in particular their greatest protection is delivered to the most vulnerable in our society – children and the elderly. Since 2000, meningococcal, rotavirus, and hepatitis A vaccines have been added to the recommended vaccinations list for children. Every year a new influenza vaccine is created and is recommended for all, but especially for children and the elderly who are most at risk from dying of seasonal flu.

Even with all the new vaccines that have been developed and the progress that has been made since Jenner’s discovery, there is still much work to be done. Researchers are actively searching for vaccines against many more diseases, including HIV, malaria, and a universal influenza vaccine that would be effective against any strain of flu. Researchers are also looking at ways to deliver vaccines to the developing world where high cost and difficult delivery scenarios prevent vaccines from being available on a widespread basis. As a result, researchers are examining cost reduction strategies and new methods for vaccine delivery that would eliminate the need for vaccines to be refrigerated and delivered through injection, i.e., oral vaccines.

So where do vaccines go from here? There is significant research occurring in several areas and it will be interesting to see who the next vaccine pioneers will be. Please share any new vaccine technologies that have occurred or breakthroughs you believe are coming soon.