Monday, May 6, 2013

The History -- Of MMR Vaccine Discovery -- Saving Hundreds of Thousands Of Lives -- And Merck Is Rightly Featured

This New York Times long-form article (on the front page, center, tonight) is a story about which anyone who has ever worked at Merck (including my eldest surviving aunt, as a fine scientist, in the 1960s) ought to be immensely proud. It is the story of science "finding a way" -- to end childhood diseases that once were nearly universal scourges. [The vaccines which comprise MMR (measles mumps and rubella) are no longer sold separately, thus the graphic at right.]

Here's a bit, from tonight's paper -- do go read it all -- fascinating:

. . . .The general practice was to isolate a disease organism, figure out how to keep it alive in the laboratory, then weaken or “attenuate” it by passing it over and over through a series of cells, typically from chicken embryos, until it could no longer reproduce in humans but could still elicit an immune response. Other steps followed, particularly for Dr. Hilleman, who was obsessed with safety and with stripping away unwanted side effects.

That spring of 1963, the Food and Drug Administration also granted the first license for a vaccine against measles. Much of the early work on the virus had been done in the laboratory of John F. Enders at Boston Children’s Hospital, but the vaccine still commonly produced rashes and fevers when Dr. Hilleman began to work on it.

Under pressure from public health officials to stop a disease then killing more than 500 American children every year, Dr. Hilleman and Dr. Joseph Stokes, a pediatrician, devised a way to minimize the side effects by giving a gamma globulin shot in one arm and the measles vaccine in the other. It was the beginning of the end of the disease in this country. . . .

Do go read it all. Great stuff.

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