Jonas Salk, Virologist And Vaccination Vanguard

In the early 1950s, the only thing scarier than the threat of nuclear war was the annual return of polio — an easily-spread, incurable disease that causes nerve damage, paralysis, and sometimes death. At the first sign of an outbreak, public hot spots like theaters and swimming pools would close up immediately.

One of the worst polio epidemics in the United States struck in 1952, a few years into the postwar baby boom. Polio is more likely to infect children than adults, so the race to create a vaccine reached a fever pitch.

Most researchers were looking into live-virus vaccines, which had worked nicely for smallpox and rabies and become the standard approach. But Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and budding virologist, was keen on the idea of safer, killed-virus vaccines. He believed the same principle would work for polio, and he was right. Within a few years of developing his vaccine, the number of polio cases in the United States dropped from ~29,000 in 1955 to less than 6,000 in 1957. By 1979, polio had been eradicated in the US.

Jonas Salk is one of science’s folk heroes. The polio vaccine was actually his sophomore effort — he and Thomas Francis developed the first influenza vaccine in the 1940s. And he didn’t stop with polio, either. Toward the end of his life, Salk was working on an AIDS vaccine.

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The Strain Of Flu Shot Logistics

Did you get a flu shot this year? How about last year? In a world of next-day delivery and instant downloads, making the yearly pilgrimage to the doctor or the minute clinic feels like an outdated concept. Even if you get your shots free at the office, it’s still a pain to have to get vaccinated every year.

Unfortunately, there’s really no other way to deal with the annual threat of influenza. There’s no single vaccine for the flu because there are multiple strains that are always mutating. Unlike other viruses with one-and-done vaccinations, influenza is a moving target. Developing, producing, and distributing millions of vaccines every year is a massive operation that never stops, or even slows down a little bit. It’s basically Santa Claus territory — if Santa Claus delivered us all from mass epidemics.

The numbers are staggering. For the 2018-19 season, as in last year, there were 169.1 million doses distributed in the United States, up from 155.3 million doses the year before. How do they do it? We’re gonna roll up our sleeves and take a stab at it.

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Go Small, Get Big: The Hack That Revolutionized Bioscience

Few people outside the field know just how big bioscience can get. The public tends to think of fields like physics and astronomy, with their huge particle accelerators and massive telescopes, as the natural expressions of big science. But for decades, biology has been getting bigger, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Specialized labs built around the automation equipment that enables modern pharmaceutical research would dazzle even the most jaded CERN physicist, with fleets of robot arms moving labware around in an attempt to find the Next Big Drug.

I’ve written before on big biology and how to get more visibility for the field into STEM programs. But how exactly did biology get big? What enabled biology to grow beyond a rack of test tubes to the point where experiments with millions of test occasions are not only possible but practically required? Was it advances in robots, or better detection methodologies? Perhaps it was a breakthrough in genetic engineering?

Nope. Believe it or not, it was a small block of plastic with some holes drilled in it. This is the story of how the microtiter plate allowed bioscience experiments to be miniaturized to the point where hundreds or thousands of tests can be done at a time.

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