William Pollack Dies at 87; His Vaccine Saved Infants
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: November 12, 2013
William Pollack, a medical researcher who helped develop a vaccine that virtually eradicated a disease once responsible for 10,000 infant deaths a year in the United States, died on Nov. 3 in Yorba Linda, Calif. He was 87.
He had diabetes and heart disease, his son Malcolm said in confirming the death.
Dr. Pollack was a senior scientist in the research laboratory of Ortho Pharmaceutical Company in Raritan, N.J., in the early 1960s when he began a collaboration with two Columbia University researchers, Dr. Vincent J. Freda and Dr. John G. Gorman, to conceive a novel treatment for erythroblastosis fetalis, a blood disorder commonly called Rh disease. The ailment is caused by seemingly superficial differences in the blood types of pregnant women and their fetuses.
Besides the biochemical traits that define the major blood types — A, B, AB and O — the blood of 85 percent of people carries a cluster of surface proteins known as the Rh factor, named for the rhesus monkeys in which it was first identified in 1940. Blood transfusions between people who have the Rh factor (known as Rh positive) and people who do not (Rh negative) cause severe immune reactions.
Rh disease occurs when a pregnant woman is Rh negative and her fetus is Rh positive. In the mixing of blood between the two during pregnancy, the mother’s Rh-negative blood cells produce antibodies that attack the blood cells of the fetus. Depending on the strength of the mother’s immune response, the effects on the baby can range from mild anemia to stillbirth.
Dr. Pollack and his partners devised an “ingenious” counterattack, as it was described in an introduction to their work in “Hematology: Landmark Papers of the Twentieth Century,” a collection published in 2000 by hematologist organizations.
The three men produced a vaccine that patrols the mother’s body, dispatches invading Rh-positive cells and causes no harm to the fetus. The vaccine was made from a passive Rh-negative antibody, which soon wears out. It not only solves the mother’s temporary immunity problem but also, more important, prevents her immune system from mounting a full-fledged response of its own, which would endanger the fetus she was carrying as well as any future ones.
“It was an absolutely brilliant idea,” said Dr. Richard L. Berkowitz, the obstetrics and gynecology director of resident education at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital. “A lot of people know who Jonas Salk is, but they should know William Pollack’s name, too. This disease was a major, major problem, and it’s been virtually eradicated.”
Researchers had developed other approaches to treating Rh blood disease, including potentially dangerous intrauterine transfusions, before the idea of a vaccine emerged. Among his other contributions, Dr. Pollack was credited with devising the process in which the blood components needed to make the vaccine are isolated and recombined in a liquid solution.
In 1980, Dr. Pollack and his colleagues received the Lasker Award, popularly known as the American Nobel Prize, for excellence in biomedical research.
William Pollack was born in London on Feb. 26, 1926, one of two children of David and Rose Pollack. His father was a carpenter. After serving in the Royal Navy during World War II, he received a bachelor of science degree from the University of London in 1948 and a master’s degree in chemistry there in 1950.
With his wife, Alison, he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the mid-1950s to work as a researcher at the Royal Columbian Hospital. In 1963 he went to work for Ortho Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson known mainly for developing spermicidal jellies, contraceptives and intrauterine devices. (It is now part of Janssen Pharmaceuticals.) While pursuing his idea for an Rh disease vaccine, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
The vaccine, a gamma globulin solution known generically as Rh immune globulin and later by its brand name, RhoGAM, was first tested on volunteers at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., and later on 600 Rh-negative women in clinical trials. It worked 99 percent of the time, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and went on the market in 1969.
In 1971, the World Health Organization recommended to its 193 member nations that Rh testing and treatment with immune globulin be made part of the standard protocol of medical care for pregnant women. In a follow-up report in 1998, the organization said the incidence of Rh blood disease, once estimated at 200,000 cases a year worldwide, had become rare.
Dr. Pollack, who later taught immunology at Rutgers and Columbia, left Ortho after 25 years to work at other pharmaceutical companies before starting a company of his own, Quotient Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing, in Anaheim, Calif.
Besides his son Malcolm, he is survived by another son, David, who was a partner in Quotient, and by four grandchildren. His wife died in 2006.
In a 1967 interview with Science News, Dr. Pollack cautioned that the Rh gamma globulin solution he and his colleagues had developed was not a cure for Rh blood disease. To be effective, the vaccine has to be given to susceptible patients every time they become pregnant.
“The cure,” he said, “is for the next generation.”