P&G Researcher Rescued Sabin’s Polio Vaccine Research

Cincinnati Children’s researcher Albert Sabin, MD, developed the oral polio vaccine. Worldwide adoption of the vaccine has nearly eliminated the crippling disease. Today it is estimated that 17 million people are walking who otherwise would have been paralyzed.

On April 24, 1960, aka Sabin Sunday, thousands of families came to Cincinnati Children’s to receive the first attenuated, live polio virus vaccine. The vaccine, which saved millions of children throughout the world from crippling disease, was the result of years of research. But few people know that Albert Sabin’s painstaking quest to eliminate the “scourge of summer” was almost derailed. Thanks to one man, however, disaster was averted.

Herb Reller was an important researcher at Procter & Gamble, having started there in 1952. He switched to skin studies research in 1955, studying the survival of various bacteria and fungi on the skin and clothing after washing with soap or detergent, with or without added antimicrobial agents. (Lever Brothers’ Dial soap had just entered the market.)

At the time, Reller’s children were 6, 4 and 2, and every summer, he and his wife worried about polio. When one of the neighbor children developed paralytic polio, the Rellers’ physician consulted Sabin concerning the need for a prophylactic serum treatment. Sabin said the Reller children would have already been exposed and that prophylactic treatment would not be beneficial. Fortunately, they did not get the polio infection.

In the late 1950s, the P&G researcher wondered whether any of the antimicrobial agents he was studying would serve as killing agents against the polio virus on the skin, clothes, or hard surfaces. P&G obtained from Sabin 12 sealed glass vials of the explicitly labeled attenuated polio virus, which had to be kept frozen at -30C until just before use. When thawed, it rapidly degraded within hours. P&G purchased a suitable small freezer system that would handle the deep freeze, and it was hooked into the emergency electrical system in their lab.

One day the research director received a frantic call from Sabin as to whether P&G still had any of the sealed frozen vials. Over the weekend, the Sabin storage facility had failed, and all of his vials had thawed and were useless. Cincinnati Children’s did not have a backup system to keep the vials frozen at the time.

P&G still had seven of the frozen vials unused, and five of them were sent to Sabin via a portable liquid nitrogen freezer to save the day. If it weren’t for P&G’s borrowed Sabin frozen vials of the polio virus, nearly a decade of research would have been lost, since those vials were the only source of producing more of the attenuated virus. P&G played a major role in Sabin’s successful attenuated live virus vaccine.

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