Building on a Legacy of Vaccine Discovery to Save Lives from the Ebola Virus

Albert Sabin, MD, imagined a world without polio, where children would be healthy and free from that deadly disease. From the moment he earned his medical degree in 1931, he tirelessly worked to make that happen. And in 1939, he brought his drive and passion to Cincinnati Children’s.

Because polio often paralyzed children, it was commonly believed that the virus lived in a person’s nerve cells. The first polio vaccine — an injection — was developed to tackle the disease throughout the body. But it didn’t provide lifelong immunity. Additional injections were needed to maintain protection.

What’s more, children who were vaccinated against the disease were still able to spread it. That meant that while they no longer could get sick, the virus wasn’t completely killed in their bodies. They could pass polio on to others who weren’t protected.

For Dr. Sabin, that was unacceptable—he wanted polio eliminated completely. He began looking for where the virus might live and reproduce in the body. If he could find that, he could create a better vaccine that could wipe out the virus entirely.

Finally, in the 1950s he found that the polio virus grows in the intestines. And that radically changed everything about how we approached the disease.

Instead of injecting a vaccine, an oral one would go directly to where the virus lived. That made it more effective in eliminating the disease and providing lifelong immunity.

Dr. Sabin’s oral vaccine was introduced internationally in 1957 and quickly was adopted around the world. Within a few decades, polio was all but eradicated.

His discovery didn’t just revolutionize medicine, however. It set Cincinnati Children’s on a new trajectory to become a pediatric research powerhouse, leading medical innovations that would improve the lives of children around the globe.

And we haven’t looked back since.

Fighting a Deadly Enemy

Like Dr. Sabin, Paul Spearman, MD, director of our Division of Infectious Diseases, loves solving the mysteries of illnesses. He’s dedicated his life to discovering what makes some viruses so deadly and what we can do to defeat them.

Currently, he and his colleague Karnail Singh, PhD, are leading a project to tackle one of the most dangerous infections in the world — the Ebola virus.

“Ebola is highly contagious and has a high risk of fatality,” says Dr. Spearman. “That’s why we’re working on developing vaccines to prevent it.”

There is still much that is unknown about Ebola. We don’t know exactly where it comes from or how to predict where it will strike. On average, at least half — and often many more — of the patients who get sick from Ebola die. No one is immune unless they have survived a previous infection.

In March 2014 the largest recorded outbreak of Ebola began. More than 11,000 people died. The outbreak ravaged multiple countries in West Africa until 2016 — but it didn’t stay within those borders. Cases were reported in the United States and Spain.

Suddenly this deadly disease was front and center on the world stage. Finding a way to stop it now had a new urgency — and Dr. Spearman and his team began work on a potential solution.

Science Moves Us

“Part of Dr. Sabin’s legacy is that Cincinnati Children’s is seen as an innovative, reputable leader in developing and testing vaccines,” says Dr. Spearman. “That’s why we’re one of only nine institutions in the nation to house a Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Unit (VTEU). Other institutions turn to us to pioneer and assess new ways to prevent infectious diseases — everything from influenza to Ebola.”

Cincinnati Children’s will soon be conducting clinical testing of two Ebola vaccines that have shown a lot of promise. However, both become less able to protect against the virus over time and have possible serious side effects.

That’s why our scientists are also hard at work developing an additional vaccine for Ebola. One that will rapidly boost protection from the disease and can be used in the field, in the middle of an epidemic, to increase protection for people in the affected areas.

Called a “virus-like particle” vaccine, it contains non-living replicas of parts of the Ebola virus. Those parts then cause the body’s immune system to respond in ways that are protective against Ebola.

“Our goal is to find a way to prevent Ebola,” Dr. Spearman says, then pauses. “We want to be able to intervene in an outbreak setting to halt the spread of this deadly disease, and ultimately, to protect adults and children from Ebola infection altogether.”

Changing the Outcome Together

On Sunday, April 24, 1960, children and their families lined up outside of Cincinnati Children’s to be the first to receive the oral polio vaccine.

By the end of what became known as “Sabin Sunday,” 20,000 kids were inoculated against the deadly disease. Not long after that, Cincinnati became the first polio-free city in the country.

It was a feat that deeply impressed Frederick Hauck, a Cincinnati businessman and philanthropist, who had experienced the effects of polio within his own family. He became a friend of Dr. Sabin and wanted to empower him — and researchers like him — to find new cures for diseases.

Mr. Hauck helped to establish the John Hauck Foundation, named after his father, to help improve Cincinnati. And part of that effort included keeping Dr. Sabin’s legacy of discovery alive. In 2017, the foundation gave a grant to Cincinnati Children’s to fund the first stages of our work on Ebola.

“We’re so grateful for the foundation’s support,” says Dr. Spearman. “Without them, our research efforts would take much longer to become reality. Their support means we can develop a vaccine quicker.”

Polio was once one of the most dangerous global threats to children. Today it’s all but eradicated. One day, we may be able to say the same about Ebola and many other infectious diseases.

When we do, it will be because of the combined dedication, vision and passion of our scientists and our donors, like the John Hauck Foundation. Together, we are working to make the future brighter and healthier for kids here and around the world.

This project was financially assisted by the John Hauck Foundation,  Fifth Third Bank, John W. Hauck and Narley L. Haley, Co-Trustees.