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William Pollack dies at 87; helped conquer deadly Rh disease

Immunologist William Pollack was part of a research team that in the 1960s discovered how to reverse the effects of incompatible antigens in a mother's blood that could kill her baby.

November 17, 2013|Thomas H. Maugh II
  • William Pollack was on the medical team that devised a vaccine for Rh blood disease.
William Pollack was on the medical team that devised a vaccine for Rh blood… (Lasker Foundation )

In the first half of the 20th century, about 10,000 American infants — and as many as 200,000 worldwide — died each year from a lethal immune reaction, called Rh disease, produced by their mother's body during childbirth. Perhaps twice that many suffered severe medical issues caused by the immune incompatibility, also known as Rhesus D hemolytic disease of the newborn, or RhD HDN.

During the 1960s, however, immunologist William Pollack of Ortho Pharmaceutical Co. and Dr. Vincent J. Freda and Dr. John G. Gorman of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center developed a vaccine that could be given to pregnant women to prevent development of the disease. The vaccine, called RhoGAM, was introduced commercially in 1968 and virtually eliminated Rh disease in the developed world.

The researchers' feat was considered by some to be one of the 10 greatest medical breakthroughs of the century and earned the men the 1980 Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, sometimes considered the American equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Pollack died Nov. 3 in Yorba Linda from diabetes and heart disease, according to his family. He was 87.

The ABO system of blood group antigens was discovered in 1900 and was sufficient to explain most potential problems associated with blood transfusions — but not all of them. In 1937, researchers identified a group of proteins on the surface of red blood cells that came to be known as the Rh antigen because they were first discovered in Rhesus monkeys.

The Rh antigen is present in the blood of about 85% of Caucasian women, 96% of women of African lineage and in virtually all women of other races. Problems arise when women who do not have the antigen, and are thus known as Rh-negative, have children with men who are Rh-positive. If the infant is Rh-positive like the father, the mother is exposed to its blood cells during birth, miscarriage or certain other events and develops an immune response against the Rh-positive cells.

The immune response generally does not affect the first such baby born to a mother. But if she conceives another Rh-positive infant, the immune cells can leak into the placenta and destroy the fetus' red blood cells, causing severe anemia, hemorrhage, brain damage or even death.

Pollack and his U.S. colleagues and Sir Cyril Clarke and Dr. Ronald Finn in Liverpool, England, independently speculated that using antibodies directed against the Rh-positive cells in the mother's blood could prevent Rh disease.

It was Pollack, however, who used newly developed techniques for separating blood into its individual components to isolate the anti-Rh-positive antibodies. Using rabbits, which were an excellent model for the human Rh system, he showed that injecting the antibodies into rabbits who had just given birth removed any Rh-positive cells from their blood, preventing the development of their own antibodies to the cells. This passive immunity went away in four to six weeks, but lasted long enough to prevent the development of Rh disease in the next pregnancy.

Pollack also provided Finn with several vials of pure antibodies for Finn's own studies.

The American team performed clinical trials of the vaccine in 42 medical centers in the U.S., Britain, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Australia and demonstrated that it was 99% effective in preventing Rh disease in the next pregnancy. RhoGAM was approved in the United States in 1968 and has been widely used ever since. The vaccine must be given during every pregnancy if the infant is Rh-positive.

William Pollack was born in London on Feb. 26, 1926. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II, then enrolled in the University of London. He received a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1948 and a master's degree in chemistry from St. George's Hospital Medical School in 1950.

He performed pathology research at St. George's from 1948 to 1954, when he moved to British Columbia to become the director of the blood bank and clinical laboratories. In 1956, he joined Ortho in Raritan, N.J., rising to become a vice president and director of research. While researching Rh disease there he obtained a doctorate in zoology from Rutgers University.

After 25 years at Ortho, he left to join another pharmaceutical company, Purdue Frederick. He later founded his own company, Quotient Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing in Anaheim, to explore uses of human antibodies for treating a variety of diseases. He was also chairman and chief executive of Atopix Pharmaceuticals Corp. in Carlsbad.

Pollack's wife, the former Alison Calder, died in 2006. He is survived by two sons, Malcolm and David.

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