By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service
With the onset of flu season — and the annual question of ‘to be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated’ — it is worth noting that world of human health, particularly in the area of preventive medicine, owes much to an graduate of Montana State University.
The abstract on a National Center for Biotechnology Information obituary on Maurice Hilleman, who died in 2005, is short and to the point: “Microbe hunter, pioneering virologist, and the world’s leading vaccinologist.”
Hilleman, a 1941 graduate from what was then called Montana State College, developed eight of the 14 vaccines routinely given to prevent an array of childhood diseases. Many of these once-deadly afflictions are now nearly eradicated from the developed world. His 2005 obituary in the New York Times credits him with probably saving more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century.
This scientist, born and raised on a farm in Miles City, also helped in understanding the ways that influenza viruses change slightly from year to year, a phenomenon known as genetic, or antigenic, drift. The need for an annual seasonal flu vaccine is due to these ongoing and subtle changes — not to be confused with the major changes in influenza viruses known as antigenic shift, which often mark the beginning of the less frequent but more deadly influenza pandemics.
Mark Jutila, MSU professor of microbiology and infectious diseases, said there is no question about Hilleman’s place in the history of modern science.
“I would say he was even widely known outside of science,” Jutila said. “I remember him telling stories about meeting the president and recounting how he put vials of the vaccines he made in a time capsule meant to represent the 20th century on one of the deep space missions. He was well known and well respected, and not just within the community of microbiology.”
David M. Morens, a senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, paints a picture of a man who had such a tremendous grasp on the science that he saw things — very complex things — with astonishing clarity.
“Unlike many scientists who understand the leaf on the tree, he understood the whole forest,” Morens said. “And, of course, he also understood the leaf. He was one of the premiere vaccinologists of the 20th century and he really was a big picture guy.”
Morens said his take on Hilleman was reaffirmed not too long ago when he found himself rereading a 2002 paper Hilleman, at the age of 82, published about influenza.
“This wasn’t necessarily anything new, but it was pulling together all the known ideas on the epidemiology of influenza,” Morens said.
And more than that, Morens said, Hilleman’s paper had artistry in its description of how the flu recycles certain components over time while waiting out a generation of human beings who have developed immunities.
“What he was describing is like a dance between the virus and the human population,” Morens said. “As the generation that’s been exposed to a certain strain of pandemic influenza dies off, there is an opportunity for a new strain of the virus, which has been absent over the years, to come in and infect the human population.”
Beyond the credit he gets as one of history’s most prolific vaccine creators, Hilleman also distinguished himself by being the first person to essentially identify and develop a vaccine for a pandemic strain of influenza before it had taken off.
In the spring 1957, while investigating what he suspected was a pandemic influenza infecting people in Hong Kong, Hilleman discovered that the only people with matching antibodies were quite elderly. In fact the only people Hilleman and investigators in Europe and Asia could find with traces of immunity to this new virus had been alive long enough to have survived a pandemic that killed six million people worldwide in 1889-90.
Hilleman, who was working with an influenza team at Walter Reed Army Medical Research Institute, raised the alarm about an impending pandemic. Many in the public health sector doubted his findings.
“Not only did he believe that the virus circulating in Hong Kong – now called Asian flu – would spread throughout the world, but also he believed that it would enter the United States in the first week of September 1957,” wrote Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in his Hilleman biography, “Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases.”
His prediction was right on the mark. Fortunately, thanks partly to Hilleman’s persistence and fast-tracking production for 40 million doses of Asian flu vaccine, the pandemic was far less deadly than the infamous 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, Offit wrote.
Hilleman decided he would have the greatest impact if he worked as a researcher in industry. He spent more than 40 years working on vaccine development with pharmaceutical giant Merck.
Stories of microbiologists saving the day are dear to the hearts of their fellow researchers. And when the hero of the tale is an alumnus of your institution, that pride is likely even more acute.
“Maurice Hilleman is one of a number of examples of people who have studied at MSU and gone on to do amazing things with their career,” Jutila said. “And then, in his case, to have been responsible for the number of vaccines that are due to his efforts, he’s had an amazing impact on human medicine. It’s hard to imagine the number of lives he’s had an impact on, and for MSU that’s a huge thing.”
That is why the Department of Microbiology honors Hilleman through the Hilleman Lecture series in which an outstanding biomedical scientist from outside MSU is invited each year to present a campus-wide seminar.
Jutila said MSU’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases is also following Hilleman’s example on a daily basis in its investigations on a variety of pathogens. Professor Allen Harmsen has a project focused on host response to influenza. Professor David Pascual is leading research programs investigating vaccine development in a variety of infection models.
“The microbiology and immunology and infectious diseases departments have major work going on in the study of infectious diseases,” Jutila said. “And it’s pretty substantial just in the context of the grant funding here on campus.”