In the mid-1960s, few scientists gave credit to the notion of a "cancer vaccine," or even to the concept that infectious pathogens might help trigger malignancy. And yet by the end of that decade, Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg had discovered the hepatitis B virus, proved that it could cause liver cancer, and developed a vaccine to fight it -- saving millions of lives.
Dr. Blumberg, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 85, remains a giant in the field of cancer prevention research. His work on the origins and dissemination of viral disease put him on a path to the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976.
That journey began in Brooklyn, where he was raised, and then to Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he obtained his M.D., followed by a residency in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and a doctorate in biochemistry at Oxford University. In 1957, Dr. Blumberg returned to the United States, working at the Geographic Medicine and Genetics Section of the National Institutes of Health until 1964.
However, it was work conducted at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia that was to shape his scientific career, which focused on pathogens such as viruses.
During the mid-1960s, Dr. Blumberg conducted numerous field trips to far-flung parts of the world, hunting for an infectious agent responsible for blood-borne jaundice and liver cancer. By 1967, his efforts led to his identifying hepatitis B as the culprit. Dr. Blumberg developed a blood test for the virus soon after and by 1969 had crafted an effective vaccine.
These discoveries have been likened to other medical milestones such as the development of the polio vaccine, and Dr. Blumberg's work is credited with sparing millions of people from lethal liver cancer.
"This is what drew me to medicine," he told The New York Times in 2002. "There is, in Jewish thought, this idea that if you save a single life, you save the whole world, and that affected me."
Still, Dr. Blumberg also struggled, in the early days after the vaccine's discovery, to interest pharmaceutical companies in investing in the life-saving shot. Merck & Company eventually agreed to produce the vaccine, but in his book detailing those years, Hepatitis B: The Hunt for a Killer Virus, Dr. Blumberg notes that the struggle against the pathogen is far from over. "Even with the vaccine widely available," he said, "hepatitis B-linked liver disease kills 1.5 million people a year and 350 million remain infected."
In his later life, Dr. Blumberg trained his eyes on the stars, shifting his career focus to the emerging science of "astrobiology" - the search for life, however primitive, beyond the Earth. In the late 1990s he was appointed to lead NASA's Astrobiology Institute. There he was charged with seeking out extraterrestrial life while examining how life can exist in forbidding, "extreme" environments here on Earth.
Dr. Blumberg is survived by his wife Jean Liebesman, an artist, and four children.