Rh Disease Vaccine Developer Dies at 87; Saved Countless Infants’ Lives

William Pollack, a medical researcher who worked at the Ortho Pharmaceutical Company in Raritan, N.J., in the early 1960s, has died at age 87.  While Pollack’s is not a household name, he is responsible for helping to develop the vaccine against Rh disease, an illness caused by seemingly minor differences in the blood types of pregnant women and their fetuses.  Pregnant women today are routinely tested for Rh status, and if they are Rh negative, they receive the vaccine so their bodies will not mistakenly attack their babies’ cells if the babies are Rh positive.  More on Pollack and his work from The New York Times:

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.

Image: Vaccine, via Shutterstock

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