Sabin, Alfred Bruce (1906–1993)
Alfred Bruce Sabin developed an oral vaccine for polio that was eventually accepted as the best way to combat the dreaded disease. Although JONAS EDWARD SALK's injected polio vaccine was the first to be widely used and thus won for him the name recognition that Sabin never achieved, Sabin's attenuated live-virus vaccine ultimately proved to have significant advantages over Salk's. Sabin also created vaccines against dengue fever and Japanese B encephalitis. Moreover, he gained insight into the human immune system's mechanisms for resisting viruses and later turned his attention to the role of viruses in cancer.
Sabin was born on August 26, 1906, in Bialystok, Poland (at the time, Russia). His parents, Jacob and Tillie Sabin, suffered from crushing poverty under the czarist regime. In 1921 the family immigrated to the United States. After settling in Paterson, New Jersey, Jacob Sabinworked in the textile business.
In 1923 Sabin enrolled at New York University (NYU), thanks to an uncle who agreed to pay for Sabin's education if he would attend dental school. After Sabin became enchanted with the science of virology and switched majors in 1925, the uncle withdrew his support, and Sabin had to struggle to pay his tuition. Sabin completed his B.S. in 1928 and entered NYU's College of Medicine. After receiving his M.D. in 1931, he fulfilled his residency at New York's Bellevue Hospital. He completed his internship in 1934 and accepted a position at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. He married Sylvia Tregillusin 1935, and the couple had two children. He was later married to Jane Warner, and finally to Heloisa Dunshee De Abranches, whom he wed in 1972.
Sabin focused on the fight against polio early in his career. The paralytic disease, which is caused by a virus that embeds itself in the brain stem and attacks the central nervous system, had reached epidemic proportions in the United States, cruelly wreaking most devastation among children. In its most severe form polio resulted in complete loss of control over all muscles. In 1936 Sabin succeeded in growing the polio virus in central nervous tissue obtained from human embryos, but he needed huge amounts of the virus to develop a vaccine, and this production method was far too costly to pursue. Sabin served in the United States Army Medical Corps during World War II. The research he conducted into encephalitis and dengue while stationed in the Pacific theater led to his creation of vaccines for both.
Upon his return he accepted a position at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, where he made a substantial breakthrough by proving that polio existed in both the digestive tract and the nervous system. This insight showed that the virus could be cultivated in non—nervous system tissue, thereby saving both time and money. In 1949 JOHN FRANKLIN ENDERS, FREDERICK CHAPMAN ROBBINS, and Thomas Sweller grew the first polio virus in human non-nervous tissue.
Jonas Salk beat Sabin in the race for a polio vaccine. In 1953 Salk announced that he had developed an effective vaccine made from dead (killed) viruses. Sabin believed that the killed virus vaccine would not be as safe as one formulated from a weakened, live virus, so he continued his efforts. When Salk's initial vaccine infected some of its recipients with polio, Sabin appeared vindicated. But Salk then took extra precautions, and his vaccine became the accepted standard in the United States. In 1957 Sabin isolated three strains of the virus that, when administered orally in a vaccine, were strong enough to stimulate the immune system but weak enough to present no danger. Sabin lobbied tirelessly for the implementation of his vaccine on a wide scale. He argued that it was safer, easier to administer, and more effective over the long term than Salk's. After Sabin's version was used with good results in massive trials in the Soviet Union and was embraced by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health approved its manufacture in the United States in 1960.
Sabin continued his investigations into other aspects of virology during and after his formulation of a polio vaccine. He addressed the potential role of viruses in cancer, as well as the probability of developing a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) vaccine. He died in 1993.