Designer of modern influenza vaccine dies

Edwin Kilbourne, the virologist who designed the modern manufacture of the yearly influenza vaccine, died on February 21 in Branford, Connecticut, at age 90.

Kilbourne understood and was involved in every step of the yearly vaccine’s manufacture and he knew the virus well enough to manipulate it into a version that could grow in eggs, according to the L.A. Times.

On his formal retirement in 2002, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged that Kilbourne had a hand in every year of the vaccine’s formulation.

Influenza is an ever-changing virus. Developing immunity for one year’s circulating flu does little for you the next year. For this reason, people must receive flu shots annually, with a team of experts predicting what strain will be prevalent.

In 1960, Kilbourne discovered a way to grow the virus in fertilized eggs so that key parts could be added that researchers wished to include in the yearly vaccine, the L.A. Times reports. The different strains could grow or recombine in the egg to create a more effective vaccine.

"This was the first genetically engineered vaccine of any kind," Kilbourne said later, according to the L.A. Times.

For several years, Kilbourne’s lab was the only one in the world that could complete the process, but he later taught scientists at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere how.

Kilbourne is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Joy Schmid; a sister, a half-sister and four sons. No cause of death has been released.

Organizations in this Story

National Institutes of Health

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