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National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Thursday, Oct. 19, 1995

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Laurie K. Doepel
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NIAID's Robert M. Chanock Awarded Sabin Medal

Robert M. Chanock, M.D., chief of NIAID's Laboratory of Infectious Diseases (LID), recently garnered another all-star honor, the prestigious Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal. The award was given for his exemplary research in the field of vaccinology, particularly the control of respiratory diseases.

In a letter notifying Chanock of his selection, H.R. Shepherd, chairman of the Albert B. Sabin Foundation's Board of Trustees, wrote, "Quite honestly, this was not a difficult decision for the Board in view of your esteemed contributions to the field and your close association with Albert, who considered you his scientific son." In 1950, after completing his training as a pediatrician, Chanock began his research career at Children's Hospital in Cincinnati under Sabin, who inspired Chanock's lifelong interest in viral diseases that affect children.

"Bob Chanock has sustained an international leadership role in infectious diseases research for more than 40 years. He is an outstanding choice for this award," commented Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID director. Chanock came to NIAID in 1957, and has headed the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases for the past 27 years.

Chanock was the first to identify and characterize the human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that is the most common cause of serious lower respiratory tract viral disease of infants and children worldwide. Although RSV may cause only cold-like symptoms and feverish bronchitis in healthy children, it is the most common agent of life-threatening pneumonia in premature infants and in young children with congenital heart disease. Each year RSV contributes to 1 million deaths worldwide, including 4,500 in the United States. It also has taken on significance as an opportunistic pathogen in children and adults with AIDS, and in people who are otherwise immunocompromised. Currently, Chanock is working on an aerosol treatment for RSV disease that uses cloned Fab fragments of monoclonal RSV antibodies introduced directly into the lungs at the site of infection. Also, he and Drs. James Crowe and Brian Murphy of LID have developed candidate vaccines for RSV that contain live virus that has been weakened so it can not cause disease. These are now in early clinical trials in children.

Chanock also discovered the four human parainfluenza viruses that are the most common cause of severe croup in infants and an important cause of other serious lower respiratory tract diseases of early life. Currently, two different experimental vaccines against parainfluenza type 3 developed by Murphy are in early clinical trials.

Until his studies in the 1960s, many experts believed that primary atypical pneumonia, also known as "walking pneumonia," was caused by a virus. Chanock correctly identified the disease agent to be a mycoplasma instead. He also was the first to show that the disease can be treated effectively with an antibiotic such as tetracycline.

Renowned for his pioneering work in developing new vaccines, Chanock created an oral vaccine to prevent epidemics of adenovirus infection among new military recruits. Since the early 1970s, the military has been routinely using this vaccine to prevent outbreaks of this debilitating flu-like illness.

Robert (Bobby) W. Brown, M.D., academic cardiologist, former New York Yankee all-star, and, most recently, president of baseball's American League, wrote in a personal letter congratulating Chanock on the Sabin award, "Victories occur in all segments of life, but research victories that enhance health are the greatest of all. In the endless fight against disease you truly have been a champion of champions."

The award ceremony and lecture took place on Sept. 14 at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. Sabin's wife, Heloisa, who helped establish the Foundation, presented the medal to Chanock in a ceremony before his talk. The award ceremony and lecture were the keynote event of a conference titled "Molecular Approaches to the Control of Infectious Diseases," attended by about 300 scientists.

In his talk, Chanock described Sabin's successful strategy for developing the live oral poliovirus vaccine. He noted that Sabin's fame as creator of the oral polio vaccine overshadowed his other scientific triumphs. For example, as a medical officer in the U.S. Army for 18 months during World War II, Sabin was the first to successfully isolate and characterize the viruses that cause dengue and sand fly fever, major military health problems at that time. He subsequently adapted two types of human dengue viruses to mice and recovered from them mutant strains that could infect but not cause disease in susceptible human adult volunteers. "I feel certain that the lessons Albert learned during his successful attenuation of dengue virus for humans were not forgotten when he began to formulate his strategy for development of a live attenuated poliovirus vaccine," Chanock commented. Sabin also helped develop a blood test to detect toxoplasma infection. Later he showed that babies who became infected with the organism while in the womb were at significant risk for birth defects involving the brain and the eyes.

The Foundation, a nonprofit organization located in New Canaan, Conn., was established in 1994 to carry on Sabin's vision of a world free of infectious diseases. It is dedicated to preventing these debilitating and deadly diseases by promoting advances in vaccine development, delivery and distribution.

Chanock is only the second recipient of the Sabin medal. Among his many other honors, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences. He has received the Infectious Diseases Society of America Joseph E. Smadel Medal, the IDSA Squibb Award for Excellence in the Field of Infectious Disease, the E. Mead Johnson Award for research in pediatrics, the Robert Koch Medal, the ICN International Prize in Virology and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Infectious Disease Research. He also has been awarded the U.S. Public Health Service Meritorious Service Medal and Distinguished Service Medal

NIAID conducts and supports research—at NIH, throughout the United States, and worldwide—to study the causes of infectious and immune-mediated diseases, and to develop better means of preventing, diagnosing and treating these illnesses. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at

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NIAID Archive

Important note: Information on this page was accurate at the time of publication. This page is no longer being updated.

Last Updated October 19, 1995