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The Sweet Science of Vaccines: Cincinnati Children’s Has Long History of Developing Medicine to Fight Off Infectious Diseases

Dr. Albert Sabin gives a spoonful of medicine -- the oral polio vaccine.

Sabin Syrup

Dr. Albert Sabin gives a girl a spoonful of the oral polio vaccine.

Sabin Sunday at Cincinnati Children's.

Sabin Sunday

Cincinnati parents bring their children to receive the polio vaccine Sunday, April 24, 1960.

“A Spoonful of Sugar (Helps the Medicine Go Down),” the popular song from the classic Disney movie Mary Poppins, was inspired by a polio vaccine developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Because the oral polio vaccine created by Albert Sabin, MD, has a bitter, salty taste, it is sometimes given to children on a lump of sugar or in a spoonful of sweet syrup – known as Sabin Syrup.

Robert Sherman, one of the songwriters for the 1964 film Mary Poppins, said the lyrics to “A Spoonful of Sugar (Helps the Medicine Go Down)” came to mind soon after his 5-year-old son, Jeffrey, explained how he had swallowed the Sabin vaccine along with some sugar while at school one day.

Such efforts to inoculate kids against polio became common at schools and other venues across the country. The first large-scale use in the United States was April 24, 1960 – known as “Sabin Sunday” – when thousands of residents of Greater Cincinnati received Dr. Sabin’s polio vaccine on cubes of sugar. They lined up outside Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as well as at schools and churches.

Polio is an infectious disease that can cause paralysis or death, particularly in children, so the introduction of Dr. Sabin’s vaccine after decades of research was hailed as a major breakthrough. The Sabin vaccine eventually became the primary defense against polio in the United States and around the world.

Dr. Sabin moved to Cincinnati from New York in 1939. “I was particularly brought in to provide expertise on virology,” Dr. Sabin recalled in a 1979 video interview. “My job was to study infectious disease.”

> Watch Video: Dr. Albert Sabin Interviewed 1979

Cincinnati Children’s has a long history in helping to keep kids and adults safe from dangerous diseases. That includes developing vaccines – as well as testing and evaluating vaccines that might have been created elsewhere.

Paul Spearman, MD, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children’s.

Paul Spearman, MD

The director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children’s is currently focused on helping develop vaccines for Ebola, HIV and SARS-CoV-2.

Robert Frenck, MD, oversees the Gamble Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s.

Robert Frenck, MD

COVID-19 clinical trials began in May 2020 and continue today under the direction of Frenck, who oversees the Gamble Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s.

 

“There’s a strong, dedicated effort all the way through the institution to help evaluate new vaccines, promote vaccine uptake, and basically help save children’s lives and also help save adult lives,” said Paul Spearman, MD, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children’s.

Dr. Spearman, who is also the Albert B. Sabin Professor at Cincinnati Children’s, has led numerous clinical trials and is currently focused on helping develop vaccines for Ebola, HIV, and SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19. He is the principal investigator at Cincinnati Children’s for a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial that began in March 2021.

Cincinnati Children’s was one of the first medical centers in the world to begin testing the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in adults and adolescents. These vaccines are needed to end the pandemic, which has resulted in the death of more than a half-million Americans – and made thousands of other adults and children so sick that they had to be hospitalized.

Clinical trials involving more than 1,200 volunteers ages 12 to 86 began here in May 2020 and continue today under the direction of Robert Frenck, MD, who oversees the Gamble Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s. Dr. Frenck is the principal investigator for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial.

In addition, Dr. Frenck has been working on vaccines for bacterial and viral diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, which includes norovirus vaccines, Shigella vaccines, and E. coli vaccine. Cincinnati Children’s is a leader in this area.

Albert Sabin and staff in 1950 at Cincinnati Children's.

Sabin and His Team in 1950

Dr. Sabin moved to Cincinnati from New York in 1939 to conduct research on viruses at the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation.

In 1927, a $2.5 million donation – equivalent to more than $37 million today – helped launch what is now the Gamble Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s.

The gift was made by James Norris Gamble, a chemist and businessman credited with developing Ivory Soap while working for Procter & Gamble Co. His father was one of the founders of the Cincinnati-based maker of consumer goods.

David Bernstein, MD, MA, arrived in 1983 to help lead vaccine efforts. In 1994, along with Gilbert Schiff, MD, Dr. Bernstein obtained funding from the National Institutes of Health to launch a Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit at the Gamble Center. The NIH funding has continued uninterrupted since then.

Dr. Schiff, a former director of the Gamble Center, developed vaccines for childhood viral diseases and played a key role in eradicating rubella, also called German measles, which was once common in children and young adults. He was also an internationally known leader in developing influenza vaccines.

In 2002, Dr. Bernstein succeeded Dr. Schiff as director of the Gamble Center and also became director of the Division of Infectious Diseases.

Richard Ward, PhD, of Cincinnati Children's.

Richard Ward, PhD

More than 20 years of research by Ward and Bernstein led to the development of an oral vaccine for rotavirus.

David Bernstein, MD, of Cincinnati Children's.

David Bernstein, MD

Today, Bernstein is principal investigator for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 clinical trial at Cincinnati Children’s.

Dr. Bernstein’s collaboration with Richard Ward, PhD, and more than 20 years of research led to the development of Rotarix, an oral vaccine to combat rotavirus, the leading cause of childhood diarrhea.

Since 2004, when Mexico became the first nation to approve the vaccine, more than 114 nations have licensed Rotarix and more than 30 million children have been inoculated. Made by GlaxoSmithKline, Rotarix was licensed for U.S. use in 2008. Wherever the vaccine has been widely distributed, deaths and hospitalizations from rotavirus have plummeted.

Today, Dr. Bernstein is principal investigator for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 clinical trial at Cincinnati Children’s, which has enrolled more than 500 adults.

“We need to do something to end this pandemic,” said Dr. Bernstein, who continues to be active in vaccine research as associate director of the Gamble Center at Cincinnati Children’s. “I think these vaccines will play a big role in doing that. It’s a larger trial than almost anything we’ve ever done, but these are different times.”

Dr. Frenck, who was recruited by Dr. Bernstein and recently succeeded him as director of the Gamble Vaccine Research Center, noted that he joined Cincinnati Children’s 15 years ago because of its history of leading the way in the scientific effort to develop and evaluate vaccines.

Melanie Mitchell, 16, getting injection in Pfizer COVID-19 trial at Cincinnati Children's.

Vaccine Research Today

Melanie Mitchell, 16, volunteers for the Pfizer COVID-19 clinical trial at Cincinnati Children's.

Over the past 25 years, the Gamble Vaccine Research Center has developed a strong core of clinical research professionals focused on vaccines and therapeutics.

This experienced team of research investigators, research nurses, coordinators, data managers, laboratory scientists and investigational pharmacists was well positioned to take on the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The clinical research team, led by Michelle Dickey, MS, APRN, leveraged past experience with the H1N1 pandemic to plan and prepare for conducting multiple COVID-19 vaccine trials. Cincinnati Children’s was supportive in providing additional acute care nurses and research staff to augment the clinical research core, and the medical center quickly made available the equipment and supplies required to manage such large trials.

“One of the big reasons that I chose to work here is the ‘can do’ attitude of the institution,” Dr. Frenck said. “If you have a good idea, Cincinnati Children’s will look for a way to make it happen. The COVID-19 vaccine trials have been a group effort and confirmed that I was right that Cincinnati Children’s finds a way to make things happen.

“It has been an honor and privilege to be part of the team effort,” Dr. Frenck said. “I will be VERY happy if we NEVER have a situation that again necessitates such resources. But, if we do, I am confident that Cincinnati Children’s will make it happen.”