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Ignacio López-Goñi, Full Professor of Microbiology, University of Navarra, Spain.

Isabel Morgan, the researcher who made possible the polio vaccine

Mon, 06 Jul 2020 17:12:00 +0000 Posted in The Conversation

Poliomyelitis is an infectious disease that has caused epidemics for centuries. It is caused by a virus that invades the nervous system and has disfiguring and disabling consequences. It can paralyze the breathing muscles and cause death. It affects any age, but is much more serious in children under five years of age.

It was one of the most widespread diseases in the 20th century, until the emergence of AIDS. In the mid-1950s, there were major polio epidemics throughout the world. In Spain, more than 20,000 people were affected. At that time there was a real terror of this disease also due to its mysterious seasonal incidence, between July and October. Many children were not even allowed to go outside to play for fear of the virus.

If you search the Internet for images with the word "polio," you will see shocking photographs of the injuries the virus causes to limbs, especially in children. You will also see images of hospital wards full of children inside steel lungs, a mechanical ventilation system that was used to force breathing when the person lost control of their chest muscles due to the disease.

Between 1955 and 1962, polio vaccines were developed: the first was developed by Jonas Salk, using killed virus. The second was developed by Albert Sabin using live attenuated virus. Mass immunization campaigns promoted by WHO, combining both vaccines, have made polio the second human infectious disease to be eradicated from the planet, after smallpox.

In this exciting success story against poliomyelitis, there is a woman's name that has gone unnoticed by many. She is the American Isabel Morgan (1911-1996). She probably inherited her interest in science from her father, Thomas Hunt Morgan, who, working with the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), discovered that genes are in chromosomes. For this he received the 1933 Nobel Prize in Medicine award . Thanks to his work, Drosophila became one of the most important organisms model at Genetics.

Isabel Morgan graduated from Stanford University and received her PhD in Bacteriology from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1944 she formed a group of research with David Bodian and Howard Howe of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. These were years of intense work and together they made basic discoveries in understanding the disease and the biology of the virus. They discovered that the main route of infection and entrance of the virus was the digestive route, not the respiratory route. That there were three different types of the virus and that during infection there was a viraemia phase (presence of the virus in the blood).

But one of Morgan's greatest contributions was his programs of study in animal models. He developed an experimental vaccine prototype with killed poliovirus inactivated with formaldehyde. He vaccinated a group of chimpanzees and found that they were protected and resisted injections with high concentrations of live virus, work which he published in 1948. This was the first experimental evidence of a polio vaccine.

Morgan was reluctant to conduct human clinical trials until she was completely sure of its safety. All these programs of study were the basis for Salk to develop the first polio vaccine a few years later.

As of 1949 his story staff is almost unknown, as it is strictly private. He left research, married and dedicated himself to his own family at plenary session of the Executive Council .

In the small town of Warm Spring, in the state of Georgia (USA), there is a monument with the sculpted busts of the fifteen heroes who participated in the fight against polio. Among them is a single woman, Isabel Morgan.