The two NICHD investigators will share the award with two other scientists
who worked independently of them as part of another team to develop the Hib
vaccine, Porter Warren Anderson Jr., PhD, and David Hamilton Smith, MD.
All four scientists recently received the 1996 Albert Lasker Clinical
Medical Research Award for their work on the Hib vaccine.
The award will be presented on December 10 at the 6th Annual Children's
Vaccine Initiative Consultative Meeting in Dakar, Senegal.
Drs. Robbins and Schneerson joined the NICHD in 1970. At that time, the
leading cause of acquired mental retardation in the United States was brain
damage from meningitis caused by Hib. Meningitis is a potentially fatal
infection of the membranes surrounding the brain. Even with effective
antibiotic treatment of Hib infection, 5 percent of those who contracted it
died and about 30 percent had residual central nervous system damage,
including mental retardation, deafness or seizures. Because of the
development of the vaccine, however, Hib infection has been reduced by more
than 95 percent in the U.S.
In 1974, Robbins and Schneerson left the NICHD for a number of years but
returned in 1983 to set up NICHD's Laboratory of Developmental and
Molecular Immunity, which was dedicated to preventing bacterial infections
by developing effective vaccines. Their approach consisted of using
bacterial polysaccharide coats as the antigen. At the beginning of this
research effort, many scientists believed it was impossible to develop a
vaccine for infants using a polysaccharide. In this early research,
Robbins and Schneerson tested the Hib purified polysaccharide vaccine, and
found that it was safe and stimulated protective levels of antibody in
adults and older children. Scientists supported by NIH's National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases did further testing and, with
the added involvement of industry, three Hib polysaccharide vaccines were
produced and licensed in 1985.
Although effective, the polysaccharide vaccine failed to stimulate
protective antibody levels in infants, the age group with the highest
incidence of serious disease. In work for which they would later receive
their Lasker Award, the two NICHD investigators developed a new "conjugate"
technology to create a vaccine. They linked a "weak" polysaccharide to a
protein easily recognized by the immature immune system. The conjugate
vaccine was soon found to be effective in infants as well as older
children. Since 1987, Hib conjugate vaccines have been licensed and
marketed, and have become part of the routine pediatric immunization series
given to babies starting at age 2 months.
Since routine use of Hib conjugate vaccine began in the U.S., the number
of cases of Hib meningitis or sepsis has fallen from 15-20,000 per year to
less than 100. Hib conjugate vaccines are now also used routinely in
Canada, Western Europe, and many other countries. Wherever these vaccines
have been used, Hib meningitis has virtually disappeared.
Drs. Robbins and Schneerson and other investigators in NICHD's Laboratory
of Developmental and Molecular Immunity have also developed improved
vaccines for pertussis and typhoid fever, and their investigational
vaccines for shigellosis (dystentery), and E. coli 0157, a life-threatening
bacterial contaminant of foods (most recently implicated in epidemic
illnesses in the United States and in Japan), are under study.