Doctor who discovered hepatitis B vaccine dies

Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist and medical anthropologist who discovered the hepatitis B vaccine and then helped to develop a powerful vaccine to fight it, died Tuesday in Moffet Field, Calif.

His family said that he died of an apparent heart attack after giving a keynote speech at a NASA conference, the New York Times reports. Blumberg is most known for his work leading to the discovery of the hepatitis B virus in 1967, the first test for the virus in the blood supply and the development of the vaccine in 1969.

Dr. Irving Millman, a colleague of Blumberg’s at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, was the vaccine’s co-creator.

After creating the hepatitis B vaccine with Millman in 1969, there was a struggle to interest a pharmaceutical company to develop and produce it.

“Vaccines are not an attractive product for pharmaceutical companies in that 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,” Dr. Blumberg wrote in an autobiographical essay for the Nobel committee, according to the New York Times.

Eventually, Blumberg and Millman formed an agreement with Merck & Company.

After decades of studies related to hepatitis B and a global search to find medicinal plants to treat hepatic infections, Dr. Blumberg began a second career, becoming the founding director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Astrobiology Institute in 1999.

The institute oversees research teams in the development of life-detecting devices for planetary rovers and asteroid fly-bys, the New York Times reports.

Blumberg saw saving lives as the whole point of his career.

“Well, it is something I always wanted to do,” Blumberg said, according to the New York Times. “This is what drew me to medicine. There is, in Jewish thought, this idea that if you save a single life, you save the whole world, and that affected me.”