THE GULP HEARD ROUND THE WORLD BEFORE SABIN, BEFORE SALK, HILARY KOPROWSKI TOOK A DARING DRINK OF LIVE POLIO VIRUS THAT LED TO A VACCINE AND VICTORY OVER THE DISEASE. THE JEFFERSON RESEARCHER IS FINALLY GETTING HIS DUE.
By Huntly Collins, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
On a cold day in January 1948, Hilary Koprowski lifted a glass beaker in his laboratory at Pearl River, N.Y., and gulped down an oily liquid made with ground-up cotton-rat brain that had been infected with live polio virus.
Two years later, that glop of goo became the world’s first oral polio vaccine to be administered to human subjects - 20 boys and girls at a nearby home for retarded children.
Ultimately, Koprowski, who went on to become the longtime director of Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute, lost the race to get his vaccine licensed in the United States. The honor went to Albert Sabin.
The feisty Koprowski has often drawn controversy. Most recently, he fought off allegations that his polio vaccine trials in Africa had launched the global AIDS epidemic - allegations that were roundly rebuffed at an international forum in London.
But today, Koprowski, 83, can take pride in his scientific achievement of 50 years ago. It laid the groundwork for Sabin’s vaccine, which has been used to immunize children around the globe against polio.
In 1991, the crippling disease was eliminated in the Western Hemisphere.
Last week, the World Health Organization declared its Western Pacific region - including all of China with its 1 billion people - polio-free.
And by 2005, polio is expected to be wiped out everywhere on the planet.
It will be a monumental achievement that, in no small measure, can be traced back to Koprowski’s original daring.
”I took on polio because it was a big, important disease,“ recalled Koprowski, who is now doing medical research at Thomas Jefferson University. ”It didn’t usually kill, but it maimed.“
For years, Koprowski labored in the shadow of Sabin and the legendary Jonas Salk, his other rival whose injectable polio vaccine ended polio epidemics in the United States in 1954.
Both competitors are now dead, and Koprowski is finally being given the honor that many say has been long overdue.
”What he achieved 50 years ago is responsible for saving thousands upon thousands of lives,“ said Susan Elder, director of the Philadelphia-area chapter of the March of Dimes, which honored Koprowski at a banquet Friday night at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City. Just a year ago, this same man was depicted as the father of the global AIDS epidemic.
In his 1999 book, The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS, British journalist Edward Hooper posited that a massive trial of Koprowski’s oral polio vaccine in the Congo from 1957 to 1960 might have inadvertently triggered the AIDS pandemic, which has now stricken 53 million people.
Hooper hypothesized that Koprowski’s polio vaccine was contaminated with the chimpanzee version of the AIDS virus, introducing the lethal microbe into the human population for the first time.
But two months ago, scientists at an extraordinary special meeting of the Royal Society of London shot down Hooper’s theory.
Among other points, they said the preponderance of evidence indicated that Koprowski grew the polio virus for his vaccine not in chimpanzee cells, as Hooper contended, but in monkey cells, as Koprowski and his coworkers say.
Koprowski acknowledges that Hooper is likely to revive his controversial view. But it’s now clear, he said, that the worst of a highly public scientific brouhaha is behind him.
”I went away from the conference with a sense of relief that the
pressure, and the lost time, was over,“ he said.
As he spoke, Koprowski sat at a round table in his crowded office on the second floor of Jefferson’s Alumni Hall, where he now oversees research on everything from multiple sclerosis to genetically engineered plants that might someday provide a cheap way to produce vaccines.
Over the years, his research has paid off in a number of fields. Among other things, he developed a vaccine for rabies and man-made antibodies to target cancer cells, turning that finding into a multimillion-dollar Malvern-based company called Centocor.
Over the years he has drawn criticism, too. After more than three decades as head of the Wistar Institute, Koprowski was fired in 1991, when the independent biomedical research center was hemorrhaging money. Among the old issues raised at the time was the profit he had made from Centocor, the company he had cofounded while at Wistar.
A resident of Wynnewood, where he lives with his wife, Irena, a retired pathologist, Koprowski gets up at 5:30 every morning, swims in his indoor lap pool, and works out with his longtime personal trainer.
Despite his advancing years, his mind, and wit, remain sharp. He speaks six languages - Polish, English, Portuguese, Italian, French and Russian - and is as accomplished in music as he is in science.
Between 9 p.m. and midnight, Koprowski sits at his electronic piano at home, which is wired to a computer, and composes music. He loves putting poetry to music and has done so with everything from Renaissance poet Christopher Marlowe to Japanese haiku.
”When you play piano or write compositions, you cannot think of anything else,“ he says.
Raised in Warsaw, Koprowski was an only child and wunderkind. He began playing piano at 5 and entered the Warsaw Conservatory of Music at 12. But for another genius piano player in his class, Koprowski might have become a concert pianist.
”I compared myself with him,“ Koprowski recalled. ”I said, ‘I will never be as good.’“
Instead, Koprowski embarked on a career in medicine, entering the University of Warsaw. He was encouraged by his mother, Sonia, the first female graduate of a dental school in Russia, who had an enduring interest in what was then called ”natural science.
As part of his medical studies, Koprowski spent two summers working in a biology laboratory in Dublin, measuring levels of ammonia in blood. The experience set his career path.
”From then on, I was bitten by the bug of experimental medicine and very little interested in patients,“ he said.
In 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, Koprowski and his family fled. They ended up in Brazil, where he hooked up with the Rockefeller Foundation, which was conducting research on yellow fever.
In 1944, the family emigrated to the United States. A year later, Koprowski went to work in the viral and rickettsial division of Lederle Laboratories, now part of the pharmaceutical division of American Home Products.
It was at Lederle that Koprowski began working on an oral polio vaccine.
The pressure to come up with a vaccine was intense. Each summer, thousands of American children were stricken with polio, which is usually acquired by contact with polio virus from the contaminated feces of other children.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself stricken with the disease, anointed the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to coordinate the quest for a vaccine that could stop the epidemics.
The foundation’s favorite son was Jonas Salk, a University of Pittsburgh scientist who was conducting experiments with killed polio virus as the basis for a vaccine.
Koprowski didn’t think that was the way to go. A more effective approach, he reasoned, would be a live but weakened form of the polio virus. It would be more potent because it would more closely mimic an actual polio infection. And it could be given orally, making it cheap and capable of being easily administered in poor countries, he thought.
But many scientists back then were wary of putting live polio virus into human beings. It was theoretically possible that even a weakened virus might revert to a disease-causing form, or that some of the virus might not be sufficiently attenuated.
At a 1951 meeting of the foundation in Hershey, Pa., Koprowski shocked the assembled scientists when he stood up and presented the promising results from the first trial of his experimental live-virus vaccine.
”What sort of monkeys are these?“ asked Thomas Francis, a leading Rockefeller Institute scientist who would later oversee the field trials of Salk’s vaccine. He had fallen asleep during the first part of Koprowski’s presentation.
Salk, who was also at the meeting, replied, ”These are not monkeys, they are children.“
”Impossible!“ Francis retorted.
”Yes,“ Salk said, ”it is possible.“
The exchange is recounted by Koprowski in several of his more than 800 scientific papers. Encouraged by Koprowski’s data, Albert Sabin then embarked on his own quest for a live-virus polio vaccine.
Koprowski believes that politics influenced the national foundation to support Sabin’s vaccine over his. Sabin was a member of the scientific establishment in academia, while Koprowski was an outsider from private industry. That view, however, is disputed by others who say Sabin’s was the better vaccine.
But more than four decades after he lost the race, Koprowski says he is not bitter.
”Both Salk and Sabin became public figures, quite justifiably,“ he said. ”They traveled the world, meeting presidents and kings, whereas I got to continue my work. I believe this was a better way for me.“