Monday, November 23, 2009

Yellow Fever vaccine

I heard on NPR this morning that millions of yellow fever vaccines, about 12 million actually, are now being offered in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Benin. According to the World Health Organization, since 2007 a total of 29 million people have been protected through mass vaccinations conducted in other African countries.  We have in our Registry of Noteworthy Research in Pathology some records of Max Theiler, who received a Nobel Prize in 1951 for his development of an effective vaccine against the disease.


The Journal of Experimental Medicine published an article in 2007 about Max Theiler and his years-long efforts to develop a vaccine. The first field trial in Brazil in 1938 proved to be highly successful and since then, more than 400 million doses have been shown to be safe and effective. The vaccine is still produced the same way as Theiler developed it in 1938: by passing the virus through chicken embryos.


Theiler won the Nobel Prize after just four nominations. The first time was in 1937 for his work on yellow fever in mice. The committee wasn't impressed. In 1948 the second nomination came from Albert Sabin (later of polio vaccine fame). The committee was a little more impressed but said Theiler's work would be prize-worthy if someone could show it was he and not his colleague Wray Lloyd who had conceived of and planned the work. The committee accepted the documentation that was produced and said good job, but gave the prize to Paul Müller for his work on DDT.


1950 produced another nomination. The committee said really good job this time but gave the prize to three other researchers for their discoveries on hormones of the adrenal cortex.


In 1951, on the very last day that prize nominations were being accepted for the year, the chairman of the committee, Hilding Bergstrand,  slid in his recommendation for Theiler under the wire. Theiler was in competition with Selman Waksman for his discovery of streptomycin. Can't you see the committee holding yellow fever vaccine in one hand and streptomycin in the other, weighing them against each other? To Theiler's advantage, not only did Bergstrand do the nominating, he also did the evaluating. Fourth time was the charm, and Theiler won the only Nobel Prize ever awarded for a vaccine. Waksman won the following year but it had taken him 39 nominations over six years.

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