Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg remembered

Baruch Blumberg

The remarkable life of Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg, a former member of the Glycobiology Institute in the department and former Master of Balliol College, was remembered at a memorial service held at Balliol on Saturday 5 November.

Dr Blumberg’s enormous contribution to the department is being marked in many ways, as announced by Professor Raymond Dwek, Director of the Glycobiology Institute, at the service.

In recognition of the role that Dr Blumberg played advising the Institute on its antiviral programme, which continues to flourish today, the Deputy Director of the Institute, Nicole Zitzmann, will have the title of Biochemistry Department Baruch Blumberg Professor of Virology – a post that will be supported for the next 20 years. 

Students too will benefit from this celebration of Dr Blumberg’s achievements - particularly fitting given the interest he took in the next generation of scientists. Three outstanding second-year DPhil students who work on Hepatitis C virus and novel approaches to antiviral drug development have been chosen to receive the first Baruch Blumberg Scholarships. Kelly Skelton, Melanie Beer and Benjamin Oestringer will be supported in full for the next two year by these awards.

Funding for these scholarships will come from royalties from the drug Zavesca*, discovered by researchers at the Glycobiology Institute for treatment against Gaucher’s Disease but which is finding a new use as an antiviral. By co-incidence, Baruch Blumberg’s portrait at Balliol College shows him under the mulberry tree, the initial source for the compound.

Baruch Blumberg giving the first United Therapeutics Virology Lecture in 2006

Baruch Blumberg giving the first United Therapeutics Virology Lecture in 2006

Baruch Blumberg’s association with the biotechnology company United Therapeutics – of which he was Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board - will be marked by the company.  Some 5 years ago, United Therapeutics agreed to fund an annual series of virology lectures at Oxford at the request of Dr Blumberg. The sixth lecture in this series, which took place on 16 November 2011, and all subsequent lectures, will be renamed the Baruch Blumberg Distinguished Annual Lecture in Virology.

Within the Glycobiology Institute, staff and visitors will also have the opportunity to remember Baruch Blumberg – through the naming of the new seminar room as the Barry Blumberg Seminar Room and the permanent naming of his office.

The seminar room, which is used mainly by first year Biochemistry students, will have photographs and a short biography of Dr Blumberg on the wall. Professor Mark Sansom, head of the department, said: ‘We feel that associating the room with Baruch will provide the students with a source of inspiration at what can sometimes be a difficult stage in their undergraduate training.’

Baruch Blumberg’s association with Oxford and the Biochemistry department is long and distinguished. After training as a doctor in his native New York and carrying out fieldwork in the remote rainforest of Suriname, he came to Oxford to study for a DPhil in the department in 1955, working on the physical and biochemical characteristics of hyaluronic acid, one of the main components of connective and epithelial tissue.

Continuing his fieldwork after the DPhil studies, Dr Blumberg was able to explore first-hand an area that particularly fascinated him – the impact of genetic variation in humans. It was this work that eventually led to the identification of the hepatitis B virus and the subsequent development of a vaccine against it, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976.

Baruch Blumberg returned to Oxford in 1972 as a visiting fellow at Trinity, and subsequently, from 1983-84, was the George Eastman Professor at Balliol. He was elected Master of the college in 1989, becoming the first American and the first scientist (with the exception of an alchemist in the 14th century) to occupy the post.

He joined the Glycobiology Institute in 1989 and helped guide the Institute’s change of direction towards the study of viruses and antiviral compounds. ‘Baruch’s approach was always refreshing,’ recalls Professor Dwek, ‘and particularly so in today’s climate of research directed towards specific goals.’ Over this period, Dr Blumberg also held Chairs at the University of Pennsylvania and was a member of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

His insights into the pathogenesis of hepatitis B virus, including linking the virus with liver cancer, have had a far-reaching impact on public health around the world. The virus is now thought to cause the majority of liver cancers as well as many cases of cirrhosis. Development of a powerful vaccine to fight the virus has been credited with saving millions of patients from ever developing liver cancer and is the first example of a vaccine capable of preventing a human cancer. Screening for the virus, too, has helped to make blood transfusion safe.

Dr. Blumberg being introduced as the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, May 1999. Image: NASA/Dominic Hart

Dr. Blumberg being introduced as the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, May 1999. Image: NASA/Dominic Hart

Baruch Blumberg had diverse interests, as exemplified by his active contribution to other scientific endeavours. He became the founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, overseeing research teams looking into the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and elsewhere. He led this virtual institute, with research spanning many different disciplines, and enjoyed the extensive travelling that the post demanded.

In recalling the impact of Baruch Blumberg’s work, Professor Dwek said : ‘I am thrilled that the department is honouring Baruch in this way. He was unique in science, his vaccine having saved the lives of around 25 million people. This dwarfs any scientific achievements this century and is on a par with the discovery of penicillin.’

Baruch Blumberg’s daughter, Jane, is delighted that the department has chosen to celebrate her father’s close association with it in so many ways. ‘Dad loved being here at the Biochemistry Department and working with Raymond and his team,’ she said. ‘I’m very happy he will be remembered in this way and that there will be scientists remembered in his name who will benefit.’

*For full history of Zavesca and the role of members of the Institute, please refer to the article 'Glycobiology at Oxford' - a personal view by Prof R.A. Dwek, FRS.





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