Following his interest in genetic anthropology, Baruch “Barry” S. Blumberg, MD, PhD, collected serum samples from people around the world in the late 1950s and early 1960s, later studying them and cataloging the genetic differences. One variant, present in some Australian, African, and Asian populations but generally absent in Americans and Europeans, particularly intrigued him. Calling it Australian antigen, or Aa for short, Blumberg noted a striking correlation: People with Aa often suffered from chronic hepatitis.
Analysis then revealed that Aa was a fragment of a viral protein. Blumberg called it hepatitis B virus, or HBV. The finding explained why leukemia and hemophilia patients had high rates of liver trouble: They received frequent transfusions of blood, which until 1972, a few years after Blumberg's discovery, wasn't tested for Aa (now called hepatitis B surface antigen, or HBsAg).
Blumberg's lab went on to develop a vaccine that primed the immune system to recognize and disarm the virus using HBsAg particles from the blood of hepatitis B carriers. Approved in 1981 and reformulated in 1986, the vaccine also helped prevent hepatocellular carcinoma, which can develop due to the chronic inflammation associated with hepatitis B, making it the first cancer vaccine. Today, most children receive the HBV vaccine soon after birth.
“I think it's fair to say that Barry prevented more cancer deaths than any person who's ever lived,” says Jonathan Chernoff, MD, PhD, chief scientific officer at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where Blumberg worked for more than 2 decades.
This article is the second in a 5-part series commemorating the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971.