Albert Bruce Sabin

views updated May 11 2018

Albert Bruce Sabin

The Polish-American physician and virologist Albert Bruce Sabin (1906-1993) developed the first effective and widely used live virus polio vaccine.

Born in Poland, Sabin emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1921 in order to avoid persecutions directed against Jews. After attending New York University as a pre-dental student he switched to medical school and to an interest in microbiology. Upon receiving his medical degree in 1931, Sabin immediately began research on the nature and cause of polio, an acute viral infection that could result in death or paralysis. This disease had reached epidemic proportions affecting people around the world. During his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, Sabin successfully isolated the B virus from a colleague who had died after a bite from a monkey. Sabin was soon able to prove the B virus's relation to the herpes simplex virus, the cause of herpes in humans.

Sabin joined the staff of the Rockefeller Institute in New York City in 1935 and four years later left for a post at the Children's Hospital Research Foundation in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was there that he proved that polio viruses not only grew in nervous tissue, as was generally assumed, but that they lived in the small intestines. By introducing the idea of enteroviruses —viruses that lived in the gut—Sabin established that poliomyelitis was essentially an infection of the alimentary tract. This discovery indicated that poliomyelitis might be vulnerable to a vaccine taken orally.

Sabin's work on a poliomyelitis vaccine was interrupted by World War II. In 1941 he joined the U.S. Army Epidemiological Board's Virus Committee and accepted assignments in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific. During this phase of his career Sabin developed vaccines for encephalitis (sleeping sickness), sand-fly fever, and dengue fever. At the war's end Sabin returned to Cincinnati and to his research on the polio virus.

Convinced that the polio virus in nature lived primarily in the intestines, Sabin resolved to make the human gut a hostile environment for it. This he intended to accomplish by isolating a mutant form of the polio virus that was incapable of producing the disease. The avirulent virus would then be propagated and introduced into the intestines, where it would reproduce rapidly, displacing the lethal virulent forms of the polio virus and protecting the human host from the disease. Sabin's goal from the outset was to find a live and safe variant polio virus that could be administered orally to combat poliomyelitis.

After an intensive investigation during which he discovered a number of new enteroviruses, Sabin managed to isolate the viruses he sought. Sabin and his research associates first ingested the live avirulent viruses themselves before they experimented on other human subjects. For two years (1955-1957) he gave the vaccine to hundreds of prison inmates with no harmful effects. At this point Sabin was ready for large-scale tests, but he could not carry them out in the United States. A rival polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1954 was then being tested for its efficacy in preventing the disease among American school children.

Whereas Sabin thought an attenuated live virus diluted and weakened would be effective, Salk was determined to create a vaccine using a killed form of the virus.

Some foreign virologists, especially those from the U.S.S.R., were convinced of the superiority of the Sabin vaccine, and hence it was first subjected to widespread tests outside the United States from 1957 to 1959. Millions of Russians, and millions more living in Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, gained protection from poliomyelitis with Sabin's vaccine. A much smaller group of persons living in Sweden, England, Singapore, and the United States received Sabin's vaccine by the end of 1959.

In the meantime the Salk vaccine experienced some problems that made the American medical community more receptive to the solution proposed by Sabin. Salk's vaccine, which utilized killed virulent polioviruses, was accidently contaminated with some live virulent polioviruses which subsequently brought death or severe illness to several hundred school children. In addition, the Salk vaccine was somewhat difficult to administer (it was necessary to inject it into the body) and it was effective for a relatively short time (less than a year).

Sabin took advantage of this situation by vigorously promoting his vaccine. It was, he said, free of virulent viruses, easily administered orally, and effective over a long period of time. The battle that ensued between the supporters of the Salk and Sabin vaccines was finally won by the Sabin forces and hence it was a live virus vaccine that was used in the United States and the rest of the world to eradicate poliomyelitis. The battle between Salk and Sabin went on for years. Salk denounced Sabin's vaccine in 1973 as being unsafe and tried to persuade the public to use his vaccine again. But he was ignored by many, and by 1993 health organizations reported the near-extinction of the polio disease in the Western Hemisphere.

The success of his polio vaccine brought Sabin many honors at home and abroad. Always a tireless researcher, Sabin did not rest upon his laurels but moved on to a new field of study—the viral origins of human cancer. After more than a decade of work he was forced in 1977 to conclude that cancers were not caused by viruses as he had first assumed. During this time he served as research professor at the University of South Carolina until taking an emeritus status in 1982. In 1980 he traveled to Brazil to deal with a new outbreak of polio, and retired from medicine in 1986. Until his death on March 3, 1993, of heart failure, Sabin continued to add wood to the fire, speaking out against many ideals, including his doubts that a vaccine should be developed to fight the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS.

Further Reading

Sabin's life and scientific achievements are treated in chapter 5 of Theodore Berland, The Scientific Life (1962) and in chapter 14 of Roger Rapoport, The Superdoctors (1975). The Salk-Sabin controversy is covered in Richard Carter, Breakthrough: The Saga of Jonas Salk (1966). The Miracle Finders by Donald Robinson and The Health Century by Edward Shorter are encouraged reading for learning of many other contributors to the world of virology. □

Albert Bruce Sabin

views updated May 21 2018

Albert Bruce Sabin


Polish-American Microbiologist

Albert Sabin is best known for his pioneering research on poliomyelitis ("infantile paralysis") and his development of an orally administered live attenuated vaccine for the prevention of the disease. Poliomyelitis is an acute viral infection that can invade the nervous system and cause paralysis. Where the disease is common, most infections probably go unnoticed, or result in mild symptoms.

Sabin was born in Bialystok, Poland. At the end of World War I, he immigrated to the United States to escape religious persecution. His family settled in New Jersey in 1921, where he attended Patterson High School. He enrolled in the dental school at New York University, but switched to microbiology. After working in Dr. William H. Park's laboratory, Sabin was admitted to the medical school of New York University. He received his M.D. in 1931, then pursued further training as an intern at Bellevue Hospital and a year at the Lister Institute in London. He was a member of the scientific staff at the Rockefeller Institute (now University) in New York from 1935 to 1939. Most of his medical career was spent at the Cincinnati College of Medicine and the Children's Hospital Research Foundation in Ohio. During Word War II, from 1943 to 1946, he worked with the U.S. Army as an epidemic disease investigator. He was appointed president of the Weizmann Institute in Israel in 1972. Although he left that position two years later, he remained active in various national and international medical agencies.

Dr. Park, his mentor at New York University, stimulated Sabin's interest in virology and viral diseases. One of Sabin's first successful efforts to isolate a dangerous virus occurred in 1932, when an associate at NYU died after being bitten by a laboratory monkey. The new viral agent, which was called the B virus, had caused the acute ascending myelitis. Poliomyelitis, one of the most feared epidemic diseases of the time, became Sabin's major research interest. Contrary to prevailing views about the means of transmission of the poliovirus, Sabin proved that the virus was spread by the fecal-oral route rather than the nasal route. The virus multiplied in the human intestinal tract. By 1936 Sabin and his associates had been able to isolate and propagate the poliomyelitis virus in laboratory cultures of human embryonic nervous tissues.

Although the natural history of poliomyelitis was still generally obscure, it was known that protective antibodies could be found in the body of survivors many years after infection. Sabin believed that long lasting immunity could best be established with a live attenuated vaccine. A killed vaccine might be easier to develop, but its effects might not be as long lasting. Another advantage of the live vaccine was that it could be administered by mouth. The attenuated virus might also be spread from those who had been vaccinated to others. During a period when unvaccinated people might easily encounter the wild type virus, the benefits of spreading the attenuated virus might outweigh the dangers. When the disease was almost eradicated, the transmission of even an attenuated form of the poliovirus to non-immune people might, however, be dangerous. Eventually, American epidemiologists found that the use of the live vaccine was associated with a small, but real risk of paralytic polio.

Before Sabin had perfected his oral vaccine, Jonas Salk (1914-1995) developed a successful killed vaccine that had to be administered by injection. A nationwide trial of the Salk vaccine in 1954 was successful. As a result of the Salk vaccine program, the incidence of paralytic polio in the United States decreased dramatically by 1961. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was committed to the Salk vaccine and unwilling to sponsor other vaccines. The World Health Organization, however, supported tests of oral polio vaccines. Sabin was an active participant in the vaccine trials carried out in Mexico, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. The highly successful vaccination tests in the Soviet Union reached about 145 million people by 1960. In 1985 the World Health Organization began an effort to eradicate polio worldwide. Sabin was active in the battle to lift the burden of infectious diseases throughout the world by bringing immunization to Third World children.


Sabin, Albert Bruce

views updated May 23 2018

Sabin, Albert Bruce

Albert Sabin (1906-1993) developed the "live" polio vaccine, beating rival Jonas Salk's "killed" virus vaccine. Sabin's vaccine is widely used and has saved many from the paralysis associated with polio.

Sabin was born in Bialystock, Poland (then part of Russia) and emigrated with his family to the United States in 1921. He attended New York University, received his medical degree in 1931, and began research on the virus that causes polio. Known at the time as infantile paralysis, polio was a source of much fear because of its ability to cause paralysis and death, especially in infants and young children.

Polio Studies

By 1936 Sabin and his colleagues were able to grow the polio virus in human tissue cultures outside the body. In 1941 Sabin established that the human polio virus enters the body via the digestive tract and not the nose as was then thought. World War II (1939-1945) interrupted Sabin's polio research. While in the Army, he studied several diseases affecting American troops, such as sandfly fever, dengue fever, toxoplasmosis, and encephalitis lethargica. After the war, Sabin returned to polio research.

By 1954 Sabin had developed a vaccine that gave protection against polio using a live virus rather than the killed virus used by Salk. Sabin believed that an attenuated (weakened and harmless) live virus would provide more rapid and longer-lasting protection than the Salk method. As some professional rivalry developed between Salk and Sabin, Sabin persisted in bringing his vaccine to completion. It became available to the public in 1961 following four years of worldwide tests. T


The Sabin vaccine has two advantages over the Salk vaccine. It can be administered orally (by mouth), rather than by injection, and offers protection with a single dose. Today, except for a few special cases, it is the preferred polio vaccine worldwide.

The development of the Sabin vaccine was the result of 20 years of research on the nature, transmission, and distribution of three related virus types. Throughout his professional career, Sabin was known for his tireless and brilliant research. In his later years, Sabin's interests led him to research the possible connection between viruses and human cancer. Sabin died March 3, 1993 at the age of 86.

Sabin, Albert Bruce

views updated May 29 2018

Sabin, Albert Bruce (1906–93) US virologist, b. Russia. In 1957, Sabin developed a live-virus oral vaccine against poliomyelitis (polio). It replaced Jonas Salk's inactivated virus vaccine.

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