Q&A with Julius Youngner: member of original polio vaccine research team


Dr. Julius Youngner, part of the polio vaccine research team, works in one of Pitt’s labs. Courtesy of University Library Systems

By Jace Bridges / Staff Writer

In the 1940s and ’50s, polio — a viral disease which attacks the central nervous system — affected nearly half a million people worldwide each year, with the disease often paralyzing or killing them. Children and young adults were particularly at risk for the disease.

But then Pitt recruited influenza expert Jonas Salk to form a virus program at the University in 1947, which began an effort to create a killed-virus vaccine for polio that lasted more than seven years.

On April 12, 1955, the federal government approved the vaccine’s use for the public, and the vaccine is still in use today.

Today, only one member of the original research team is still alive. Julius Youngner, now 96 years old, worked on the polio vaccine research team as a virologist and microbiologist. And remains part of Pitt’s faculty as a service professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry.

Youngner sat down with The Pitt News and discussed the historic research team and the ways research has change since his days in the lab with Salk.

The Pitt News: Can you tell me a little bit about the experience of doing research as a part of the polio team?

Julius Youngner: “Well, it was very exciting. Especially since we knew very early on that we were probably going to be successful, because it was successful in monkeys — the vaccine immunized the monkeys, so they didn’t get polio when we challenged them.”

TPN: How did you first get involved in Polio research?

JY: “I was a commissioned officer at the Cancer Institute in Bethesda, [Maryland], and I wanted to work with viruses and cell culture, but there was no lab space for me to do that. So, they said go anywhere you want, that way you can do what you want, and then come back and you will have a lab. Jonas Salk and I had a joint acquaintance in Ann Arbor, [Michigan], and when he found out I was looking for a position, he called me and said that you can work on cell culture and viruses, but I would like you to first work on polio. And I said, that’s no problem. And the rest is history.

So, when it came time for me to go back and work on cell culture and viruses, I stayed on the reserves and worked in Pittsburgh because I knew we were on the way to getting a major vaccine against a major disease. And here I still am.”

TPN: How long was the time from the onset of the polio project until the results were able to be published?

JY: “We had immunized monkeys by 1951 and then we went to volunteer school children. Then in 1954, they started the big field trial with around 800,000 children in 12 states — that’s a kind of field trial that will never be seen again. It was done double-blind. On April 12, 1955, there was a big announcement made in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the trial headquarters were and they made the big announcement that the vaccine was successful and it just went around the world like lightning because people were so afraid of polio and the incidence was increasing, especially in upper age groups.”

TPN:  How would the trial have been different if it had been conducted today?

JY: “Today, it would have taken us 12 years to do what we did in four and a half years because of all the regulations now — there’s the institutional review board, the FDA, the animal care organization, the federal government. We didn’t even work with laminar flow hoods for safety, and we did mouth-pipetting, which you can’t do anymore. So, it would have taken us much longer if we were starting out now.

“It would have been safer for us, and it would have had approval from many different groups before we could go ahead with each stage. We didn’t have to wait for formal approval by Institutional Review Boards for protocols and what we were going to do … And, with the animal care regulations now, our cages for the monkeys would have never passed muster … But, that’s why we did it so fast. That is an amazing thing for the world to recognize — this was done in very short time.”

TPN: In the early 1900s, polio was a major epidemic, especially in New York, where 6,000 people died — many of them children — and 21,000 were left temporarily or permanently paralyzed by the epidemic, according to the New York Times. Do you think fear made finding volunteers an easy task?

JY: “Absolutely. And not only that, in 1952, when we started doing the human trials in Pittsburgh, this was the height of polio incidence — there were 52,000 cases of paralytic polio in the United States. We also had an incentive because in the building we working in, on the third floor, there were all people in iron lungs and to go up there and see these people in the iron lungs, which were artificial breathing devices, gave us an incentive to work hard.

TPN: In regard to grants, how is the process different now than it was 50 years ago?

JY: “Well, in those days, the [National Institutes of Health] was not funded the way it is now. The whole development of the polio vaccine was done with only private money provided by what was then called the National Institute for Infantile Paralysis, which is now the March of Dimes, so there was not one penny of federal money. Actually, it gave an incentive and showed the government what can be done when you can spend money on research.”

TPN: In your mind, what is the next up-and-coming research discovery?

JY: “They are working on the Zika virus and that’s taking a lot of people’s energy. But, when they conquer Zika virus and have a vaccine, there will be something else because nature knows how to fill niches — there is always something new nature can do her tricks with. We never had ebola before, we never had Zika before … so, there is always going to be something new to threaten us and make research essential to solve the problem.”

TPN: Will we ever be able to predict what will threaten us next?

JY: “No, I don’t think so … you can’t predict where it’s going to come from. Who would have predicted Zika virus? They didn’t even know the name, but it was circulating in Africa somewhere, from some animal and into humans. Then, it broke into populations that had never experienced it before in the Western Hemisphere and Asia, and it spread very easily.”

TPN: How has the focus of research evolved over time?

JY: “I don’t think the focus has changed because in infectious diseases there are lots of problems that have to be solved. For instance, antibiotic resistance — that’s a problem that is really hard to solve … it is staying ahead of scientific technology. And now, a new disease like Zika, comes into the developed world and is carried by mosquitos, which we have plenty of in this country, and they found out a lot of things about Zika that they never knew — it can be transmitted sexually, by saliva. I mean, it’s really a very unique disease.”

TPN: How do you quantify success?

JY: “Not only by the publications, but by the impact that your research has on others and the public and other scientists and what they are doing.”