August 29, 2008

Nobel Prize Winner Aided Polio Vaccine ; Thomas Weller, a Tropical-Medicine Specialist Whose Tissue-Culture Research in 1949 Made Development of the Salk and Sabin Polio Vaccines Possible and Won Him a Share in a Nobel Prize, Has Died Aged 93.

Thomas Weller, a tropical-medicine specialist whose tissue- culture research in 1949 made development of the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines possible and won him a share in a Nobel Prize, has died aged 93.

The 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Mr Weller and two colleagues at Harvard, John Enders and Frederick Robbins, for their application of tissue-culture methods to the study of viral diseases. Vaccines for other viral diseases, like chicken pox and measles, also stemmed from the Enders-Robbins- Weller method.

Mr Weller was an emeritus professor of tropical medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health, retiring from his research and teaching duties in 1980.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the much-feared and poorly understood poliomyelitis virus was causing tens of thousands of new cases each year of what was then called infantile paralysis.

Rows of iron lungs, or breathing machines, filled hospital wards, and worried parents kept children from movie theatres and public swimming pools each summer as researchers sought a test-tube alternative to live monkeys and other animals in which to study the virus.

The Harvard team reported their breakthrough, in the October 1949 issue of Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, as "Cultivation of poliomyelitis virus in cultures of human foreskin and embryonic tissues". The embryonic tissue came, initially, from intestinal cells, and the method was eagerly adopted in the rush to develop vaccines against polio.

While Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were rivals at different institutions in the race to develop a vaccine, working conditions were more collegial in the Harvard laboratory, where Mr Weller was the newly appointed assistant director of the division of infectious diseases at Children's Medical Center. Enders, who had been Mr Weller's teacher at Harvard Medical School, said when told of the 1954 Nobel Prize he would share: "No discovery in the scientific world is due to the work of any one man, but always results from the work of many people." (Mr Enders died in 1985, Mr Robbins in 2003.)

Mr Weller went on to make advances in the study of parasitic diseases like schistosomiasis, to isolate the varicella zoster viruses for chicken pox and shingles, and, with the fortuitous aid of his own 10-year-old son in 1960, to help identify the virus for German measles.

Thomas Huckle Weller was born June 15, 1915, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the son of a University of Michigan Medical School pathologist, Carl Vernon Weller, and the grandson of a general practitioner, Martin Weller.

After earning an A.B. degree at the University of Michigan, he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1940. His studies there prompted a lifelong interest in tropical diseases.

Mr Weller was a teaching fellow at Harvard until 1942, when he was commissioned as an army medical officer in the Second World War and dispatched to a research post in Puerto Rico to work on malaria control at military bases in the Caribbean.

He left the army with the rank of major in 1946, continued his clinical training at Children's Hospital in Boston, and was a founding member, with Enders, of the research division of infectious diseases at Harvard. Mr Robbins, whom Mr Weller had first met in medical school, joined the centre in 1948. Mr Weller was a consultant to the World Health Organisation, the Pan American Health Organisation and the International Health Organisation of the Rockefeller Foundation.

In 1945 he married Kathleen Fahey and they have two sons, Peter Fahey and Robert Andrew, and two daughters, Janet Louise and Nancy Kathleen.

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