October 11, 2005
La Jolla, CA – Polio survivors – who were afflicted with poliomyelitis in the years or months before the vaccine to prevent this often-crippling disease became available in 1955 – are invited to attend a special symposium, at 3 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 27, at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
The symposium coincides with this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first vaccine against polio, a disease that once paralyzed 13,000 to 20,000 people nationwide each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In 1952, three years before the vaccine was produced, about 58,000 people in the U.S. contracted polio.
Studies funded by the March of Dimes proved in 1955 that Dr. Jonas Salk ‘s vaccine approach safely and effectively prevented the disease.
“Jonas Salk never profited from the many years of hard work that he dedicated to developing the polio vaccine,” said Richard Murphy, Ph.D., the Salk Institute’s president and CEO.
Instead Dr. Salk leveraged his fame and celebrity to assemble some of the greatest minds in science to found in 1960 the basic research institute that today bears his name. In 1965, the Salk Institute’s main laboratory facilities – designed by the famous architect Louis Kahn in collaboration with Dr. Salk – opened their doors.
As envisioned by Dr. Salk, the institute’s 58 faculty scientists focus on basic research to illuminate the molecular origins of health and disease. Such research, in addition to advancing our knowledge about human biology, fuels clinical advances in the treatment of many diseases.
“The Salk polio vaccine was the greatest public event of the 20th century,” said polio survivor and Escondido resident Mary Clare Schlesinger, who developed the disease in 1952 at the age of three. “Polio survivors have the deepest understanding of the importance of the Salk vaccine.”
“On the 50th anniversary of the vaccine, polio survivors appreciate the Salk Institute recognizing their part in the founding of this great research Facility,” added Ms. Schlesinger, who heads a San Diego support group for polio survivors.
In addition to Dr. Murphy, symposium speakers will include: Peter Salk, M.D., one of the vaccine developer’s three sons; Salk professors Samuel Pfaff, Ph.D., and Greg E. Lemke, Ph.D.; and Salk staff member Kathleen Murray, an assistant to Dr. Salk in the last several years of his life. He died 10 years ago.
Both Drs Pfaff and Lemke, neuroscientists, will talk about their basic research on the nervous system, studies that may prove relevant to understanding post-polio syndrome, which afflicts many polio survivors and is due to a further weakening of the muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection.
“The meeting is important to us at Salk because it reminds us that basic research is important for understanding diseases that affect the nervous system,” said Salk Professor Walter Eckhart, Ph.D., who helped to organize the meeting as well as the following day’s scientific symposium.
On display during the meeting will be a visual reminder of polio’s impact: an iron lung, which enabled people with polio to expand and contract their lungs – and therefore to breathe. It is still used by an estimated 60 polio survivors across the U.S.
The crippling and sometimes fatal disease is caused by a viral infection that disables the nerve cells, or motor neurons, that connect to the muscles of the body. The crippling and paralysis primarily affected children – although one U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was afflicted as an adult.
In her book Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine, Jane Smith wrote: “It was not until the summer of 1916, when a devastating epidemic struck the New York area that polio entered into public consciousness. By the end of the summer, 27,000 people were paralyzed and 9,000 dead. For the next 40 years, not a summer passed without an epidemic somewhere.”
Thanks to massive immunization campaigns, the Western Hemisphere is polio free, according the CDC. Outside the U.S., polio strikes in several African countries as well as in India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Today about 250,000 polio survivors may have post polio syndrome, according to the March of Dimes. Generally striking decades after recovery from paralytic polio, symptoms usually begin with progressive muscle weakness, followed by debilitating fatigue, loss of function and pain, especially in muscles and joints.
On Oct. 28, the Salk Institute will hold its 40th Anniversary Scientific Symposium, in recognition of the completion of the institute’s centerpiece research facilities in 1965. It was organized by Dr. Eckhart and Salk Professor Inder Verma, Ph.D.
Speakers, who will address a variety of topics, from plant biology to memory systems of the mammalian brain, will include David Botstein, Ph.D., Princeton University; Suzanne Bourgeois, Ph.D., Salk Institute; Russell Doolittle, Ph.D., University of California at San Diego (UCSD); Nobel laureate Joseph Goldstein, M.D., University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Leanne Jones, Ph.D., and Jeff long, Ph.D., Salk Institute; Gary Nabel, M.D., Ph.D., National Institutes of Health; and Larry Squire, Ph.D., UCSD.