Fifty-one years ago he played a pivotal role in the battle against the crippling and killing polio virus, and this week Don Wegemer was welcomed to campus to talk about his work with Dr. Jonas Salk in developing the vaccine that would virtually close the books on the dreaded disease.
Wegemer, featured in the science lecture series on Tuesday, worked alongside Salk for 32 years, helping the scientist bring to the market the first successful polio vaccine on April 12, 1955.
The polio virus, which has been shown to have existed for thousands of years among humans, was considered a national epidemic in the U.S. at the time the vaccine was developed; the viral disease had rendered thousands of Americans either dead or paralyzed.
The virus, named poliovirus (PV), enters the body orally, infecting the walls of the intestine. It may then proceed into the blood stream and into the central nervous system causing muscle weakness and often paralysis. Death occurs when the lungs become paralyzed.
Wegemer worked in the Salk lab, located in the basement of a hospital funded through the University of Pittsburgh. The upper floors of the hospital were filled with victims afflicted by polio. Wegemer claimed, “we looked to heaven for inspiration, but looked through the third, fourth and fifth floors on the way.”
Lab conditions were admittedly adverse, according to Wegemer, who said that scientists in the Salk lab resorted to constructing their own incubators and filters. Also, they used dangerous, yet creative methods that would make MacGyver jealous, using “swivels, magnets and towels soaked in mercury chloride” to carry out experiments.
Wegemer matter-of-factly pointed out that lab conditions were hazardous enough that two scientists working in the lab died of bacterial infection.
After years working on a vaccine for polio, the Salk team carried out a massive study funded by the March of Dimes foundation. The foundation headed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was himself a victim of the viral disease, raised $1.8 million for the double-blind study carried out in the summer of 1954.
In April of 1955, 15 years after the epidemic began in the United States, Dr. Salk announced that they had successfully developed a “safe and effective” vaccine for the polio virus.
The Salk team was in healthy competition with another team headed by Albert Sabin. The differences between the two most common vaccines are that the Salk vaccine uses a dead strain of the poliovirus injected into the patient with a needle, whereas the Sabin vaccine uses a live but attenuated form of the virus taken orally on a sugar cube.
Recently, as Wegemer pointed out, a virologist at New York’s Stony Brook University has managed to synthetically manufacture the virus. Obtaining a genetic blueprint for the virus from the Internet, a group of scientists constructed the pathogen. According to “Newsweek,” “[the virologist] says the experiment was intended as a wake-up call:
The major purpose was to show that it can be done.'”
Wegemer urged today’s generation of scientists to overcome modern obstacles that
affect our world, such as energy consumption.
“If the sun has fueled our earth with energy from fusion for so long, why can’t we find a way to use that energy?”