Microbiologist Irving Millman, 88, helped develop hepatitis B vaccine

April 26, 2012

By Emily Langer

April 25, 2012

Irving Millman, a microbiologist who played an instrumental role in developing the hepatitis B vaccine, an innovation recognized as one of the most important medical advances of the latter 20th century and one that has saved millions of lives, died April 17 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District. He was 88.

The cause was complications from internal bleeding, said his daughter Diane Millman. He had lived in Washington for the past decade.

Hepatitis B is an infectious virus that can lead to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and a deadly form of cancer. More than 1 billion people worldwide have received the vaccine since it became commercially available in 1982. Because of the protection it provides against liver cancer, it has been called the first “cancer vaccine.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Dr. Millman was the only trained immunologist on an eclectic team of hepatitis researchers at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Leading the team was scientist Baruch S. Blumberg, a future Nobel laureate.

Part biochemist and part anthropologist, Blumberg had spent the previous decade collecting blood samples from populations around the world for the study of infectious disease. Using the serum from an Australian aborigine, he had identified the hepatitis B virus. He received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for that work, and died last year at 85.

Once Blumberg had isolated the virus, the challenge was to halt its transmission from one person to another. Dr. Millman’s arrival at the Fox Chase laboratory in 1967, Blumberg wrote in an essay, was “perhaps the most important factor” in making the breakthrough discovery.

Without Dr. Millman, Blumberg told the Jewish Exponent in 1993, “we couldn’t have made that vaccine, no question about it.”

Dr. Millman launched his career at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he did research on a tuberculosis vaccine in the 1950s. Later, he joined the Merck pharmaceutical company and worked on vaccines for whooping cough and rubella.

At Fox Chase, Dr. Millman’s experience in immunology and virology was pivotal, said W. Thomas London, an internist and endocrinologist who also worked on the hepatitis B research.

Vaccines work by introducing into the body a weakened or inactive form of a particular disease. Those microbes — not powerful enough to sicken a person — stimulate a response from the immune system to ward off the disease.

In the case of hepatitis B, London said, Dr. Millman devised a way to separate the hepatitis B virus from a human blood sample, purify and then kill the virus through heat or a chemical treatment. This procedure became the process by which the vaccine was created.

It was dangerous work, London noted. By handling the blood samples, Dr. Millman and other researchers were constantly exposed to the hepatitis B virus. (Today, the vaccine is created through genetic recombination, a process that rejiggers a portion of the virus’s DNA and does not put researchers at risk of contracting the disease.)

Initially, pharmaceutical manufacturers showed little interest in the work by the researchers at Fox Chase.

“Vaccines are not an attractive product,” Blumberg wrote in an autobiographical sketch for the Nobel committee. “They are often used once or only a few times and they ordinarily do not generate as much income as a medication for a chronic disease that must be used for many years.”

After several years, Fox Chase signed a contract with Merck. The vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1981 and soon became widely used in the United States and around the world.

While at Fox Chase in the 1960s, Dr. Millman also helped create a screening test used to detect hepatitis B in blood samples. After blood banks began widely using the test in 1971, the transmission rate of hepatitis B through transfusions decreased by 25 percent, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, which inducted Blumberg and Dr. Millman in 1993.

Irving Millman was born May 12, 1923, in New York City. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, worked in the Garment District; his mother was a homemaker.

Dr. Millman served in the Army in Europe during World War II and received a Bronze Star Medal for capturing a German soldier, his daughter said.

He received a bachelor’s degree from City College of New York in 1948, a master’s degree in bacteriology from the University of Kentucky in 1951 and a doctorate, also in bacteriology, from Northwestern University in 1954.

While studying at the University of Kentucky, he married Edith Greifinger, a Polish Jew who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and immigrated to the United States after World War II.

His wife died in 2009. Survivors include two children, Diane Millman of Washington and Steven Millman of Boston, and five grandchildren.

During his career with Fox Chase, Dr. Millman also conducted research on the bacterium linked to acne and taught microbiology at Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. He retired in 1989.

It has been said that the hepatitis B vaccine improved global health conditions so dramatically that the average human life span may have increased by several months since the vaccine was introduced.

“Not many people can say they have had an impact like that,” Fox Chase scientific director Jonathan Chernoff wrote in an e-mail.

Originally published in The Washington Post