Maurice Hilleman, are you allergic to eggs? | Day 7 of 100

5min read

Maurice Hilleman was a completely unknown name to me until today where he was the subject of a podcast I was listening to. Hilleman is one of the great scientists of modern times, who developed more than 40 vaccines over his career including some of the most common ones we receive as children. Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps and Meningitis to name a few. I guess being an (ex-)Physicist I had not come across this microbiologist's name, but the fact that he is responsible for so many vaccines makes him responsible for saving quite a large number of human lives. So you would have thought he would be more famous.

Why is it that such talented, hard-working and world-changing individuals are not more broadly celebrated?

Unfortunately, Hilleman passed away in 2005 and the ripe age of 85 after a hugely successful and impactful career in vaccinology. Though as I said, his work lives on in all of us who are vaccinated for the 40+ vaccines he developed. But what does any of this have to do with eggs? Disclaimer: I am about to butcher some great science and scientific terms, but here's how my simple mind understands it...

When attempting to develop a vaccine for virus via a method called attenuation, a live strain of the targetted human form of a virus is added to a fertilised hen's egg. Most of the virus will die because it is not suited to chicken cells and DNA, but a small amount will live due to mutations which have allowed it to do so. The mutated virus is nurtured in the eggs until it eventually gets tired of taking over it's host due to selection pressure (essentially runs out of resources to continue evolving, the lack of resources makes it weak). But just because it is now tired, and also suitable for chickens, does not mean it is safe for humans. So we can repeat this process until it is.

The balance we are looking to achieve with the attenuation process is; weak enough that the human immune system and recognise and defeat it, but not so mutated into chicken DNA language that the human immune system does not recognise it. Finding the sweet spot here is key as an imbalance in either direction could cause significant harm when then tested in humans. Hilleman was a master of this balance. Thus having a much higher output of vaccines than others in his field.

Back to the eggs though! Now we know that some viral vaccines are developed (still are to this day) through the eggy attenuation method. Which explains being questioned by doctors, nurses and pharmacists about egg allergies before they administer certain vaccines.

Many of Maurice Hilleman's vaccines were aimed to be developed for children, so were often tested on children. Whilst some of these children had been volunteered by their parents, many were institutionalised children being looked after by the American state. Without any parental sign-off, these children were volunteered by the state for these vaccine trials and other scientific experimentation. But this was the time that these vaccines were developed in, a low bureaucracy, lightly legalised period of time. A time where members at the forefront of science, or any movement or idea for that matter, were guided by their own ethics and principles. Of which Hilleman's were “Do no harm, and do good.”. As a result, no children got sick from Hilleman's vaccines. A testament to his talent.

This somewhat resonates with something I heard on one of the latest Joe Rogan podcasts with Moxie Marlingspike (Founder of the Signal messaging app), which speaks about the progress of humans and how new ideas, capabilities or discoveries often happen in private, on the fringes of what we know to be good/bad, right/wrong. If Hilleman's vaccines were not tested on Pennsylvanian children, how many lives would have been lost to these diseases?