T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      M A Y   -  J U N E   2000

Nobelist Baruch Blumberg on a Mission to NIH


by Fran Pollner

Shortly after Baruch Blumberg came to NIH in 1957, he and others in the clinical research group he’d joined (in what was then known as the Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases Institute) started a new section. It was Blumberg who named the new section "Geographic Medicine and Genetics."

"Thinking of genes by themselves can be misleading," he explains. "You can’t look at just one gene at a time and you can’t look at genes outside the context of the environment of the host, both internal and external."

The world at large became the site of his field work studying polymorphisms and their relation to disease susceptibility–work that led to the discovery of the Australia antigen and later, after he’d left NIH, to the identification of the hepatitis B virus and the development of the hepatitis B vaccine.

Today, Blumberg’s focus is still, essentially, "geographic medicine and genetics," but his "geography" has expanded beyond the terrestrial.

Last spring, Blumberg became the first director of the newly created NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Its mission is the "study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life on earth and in the universe." Headquartered at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., its work is carried out wherever the spirit moves affiliated scientists at what are now 11 participating U.S. institutions and one international team. And, like the universe, the NAI is expandable.

Baruch Blumberg, director, NASA Astrobiology Institute

Blumberg would especially like to see expansion in the form of coordinated NAI-NIH research. He envisions a variety of collaborations to be determined between NAI and NIH intramural scientists—jointly funded projects, perhaps, in such areas as new and emerging diseases, prebiotic chemistry, and the origins of cancer. He’s had discussions with acting NIH director Ruth Kirschstein, deputy director for intramural research Michael Gottesman, and NIAID director Tony Fauci, and he plans to talk with more institute heads. Discussions are under way for an NAI-NIH seminar to acquaint the scientific community here with the astrobiological plane.

It’s a program of "discovery, of basic research," Blumberg says. And although much of the research "is based on the notion that NASA has space flight capabilities," most of it to date has actually been conducted on Earth—albeit under the sea deep within rocks, or embedded in ice, for example. Some of the materials studied traveled through space to get here.

"Astrobiologists are very interested in organisms that live under what we think of as extreme conditions; of course, they are not ‘extreme’ for these organisms, which we have given the name ‘extremophiles.’"

The greatest probability for life in our solar system, Blumberg says, is on Mars, Europa (a moon of Jupiter), and Titan (a moon of Saturn), as well as in "cosmic dust," which can also be found all over Earth. If life actually exists in these places, it would most likely be under the conditions of early Earth, before our atmosphere had oxygen, when extremophiles probably flourished here, he says.

"We want to look at early Earth and the organisms that are still present in contemporary geothermal vents," he notes, observing that although such astrobiological explorations may seem remote, "the whole world of molecular biology, as revealed by PCR, is based on an enzyme extracted from an extremophile that operates at very high temperatures"—a discovery that earlier generated considerable interest in the field of astrobiology.

Baruch Blumberg in town for the National Academy of Sciences annual meeting and to talk about astrobiology.

Some life forms adore the cold. "A lot of our people are in the Arctic and Antarctic, where they have found organisms living in ice crystal water channels. Nobody knows if they cause disease. I’m interested in exploring virology, the phage within these bacteria under these extreme conditions."

Medical microbiologists and astrobiologists, Blumberg notes, tend to look at organisms differently. The "one bug–one disease" paradigm still prevails among the former, while the latter adopt an "ecological approach," examining, for example, biofilms, or layers of bacteria glued together with long-chain sugars, and the interactions among organisms and the relation of their evolution to the changes in the earth’s environment.

Another possible field for mutual exploration, presumably with NCI, could revolve around the question, "When did cancer start?" The answer could be, "When cells first started," Blumberg speculates. How cells started is a major astrobiological concern. The search for organic matter in space has uncovered such things as amino acids in meteorites and organic molecules floating freely in space dust. "There’s a lot going on in prebiotic chemistry," Blumberg says, including teasing out when prebiotic becomes biotic.

The NAI’s initial request for proposals from institutional groups representing multiple disciplines brought in 50-plus applications, 11 of which were accepted. In addition to the Ames Research Center, the other lead institutions are Arizona State University, Tempe; the Carnegie Institution of Washington (D.C.); Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; the Johnson Space Center, Houston; the Marine Biology Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass.; Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.; the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.; the University of California at Los Angeles; and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Blumberg is currently also senior advisor to the president of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where he was formerly vice president for population oncology and associate director for clinical research—and the recipient for 30 years of an NIH grant for a liver cancer prevention program.


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