Robert M. Chanock, 86

Robert M. Chanock, virologist who studied children's diseases, dies at 86

Chanock (Courtesy National Institutes Of Health - Courtesy National Institutes Of Health)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Robert M. Chanock, 86, an internationally renowned virologist who identified a baffling pathogen that infects the majority of infants and is the most common cause of life-threatening pneumonia in premature babies, died July 30 at Copper Ridge, a residential care center in Sykesville, Md. He had Alzheimer's disease.

In the course of his six-decade career at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Dr. Chanock did wide-ranging and groundbreaking research on a number of stubborn and dangerous diseases, particularly those affecting children and babies.

"You don't find many people who are able to study the cause of a problem, its importance -- how many children or adults did it affect? -- and then develop a vaccine," said Albert Kapikian, a colleague of Dr. Chanock's at NIAID since 1957. "He was a giant in the field, a legendary figure, because he was able to cover these three areas."

For all his many accomplishments, particularly in research on respiratory diseases, Dr. Chanock was equally admired by colleagues for his ability to foster a dynamic and creative environment in which other scientists also thrived. Members of his lab group identified the Norwalk virus, which causes intestinal flu, and did pioneering work on vaccines against hepatitis A and West Nile virus. They also developed the first vaccine for rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea in children.

The sum of his own accomplishments and those he inspired, said Anthony Fauci, NIAID director, is "unparalleled in the history of American virology."

Early in his career, Dr. Chanock identified several respiratory viruses, including the first virus known to cause croup, or coughing spasms, in babies. He bucked scientific consensus to figure out that so-called "walking pneumonia" is caused not by a virus but by a kind of bacteria called mycoplasma, and he showed that it could be treated with antibiotics.

In 1968, he became chief of NIAID's Laboratory of Infectious Diseases. He and his team there were instrumental in developing the first nasal-spray influenza vaccine. They also invented and licensed a vaccine against adenovirus infection that protected an untold number of military recruits from fever, chills and respiratory problems. But the central mystery of his career was a ubiquitous virus that rips through hospital nurseries and the larger community each winter. The world's most common cause of serious lower respiratory infection in infants, it affects almost every child before the age of 2 and causes the death of at least 200,000 babies each year.

In the 1950s, Dr. Chanock became the first to identify and characterize this pathogen, which he called human respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. He and his team succeeded in developing an RSV vaccine, but while conducting clinical trials they were horrified to discover that rather than immunizing patients against the virus, the vaccine appeared to intensify their symptoms.

Dr. Chanock and his team continued working on the problem, eventually developing another vaccine that is currently in clinical trials. He and his colleagues also developed an antibody that can be given in the meantime as a preventive measure to infants at risk of severe RSV infection. It was licensed for sale by the Food and Drug Administration in the late 1990s. Dr. Chanock stepped down as lab chief in 2001 and continued working until 2008.

Robert Merritt Chanock was born in Chicago on July 8, 1924. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1945 and received a medical degree there in 1947.

He was a fellow at Children's Hospital in Cincinnati and a professor at the University of Cincinnati and at Johns Hopkins University before joining NIAID, one of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Chanock apprenticed with Albert Sabin, who developed the oral polio vaccine, and decided early on to focus his career on tracking down and warding off the unknown viruses that caused disease epidemics among babies. Sabin, who died in 1993, called Dr. Chanock his "star scientific son."

Dr. Chanock was a member of many professional organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences. Among his numerous honors were the U.S. Public Health Service Meritorious Service Award and the Distinguished Service Medal.

His wife of 60 years, the former Catherine Elizabeth Osgood, died in 2009. Their son Foster O. Chanock died in 1980.

Survivors include a son, Stephen Chanock of Potomac; and four grandchildren.

RSV made headlines long before there was any way to fend it off. It sweeps through the United States every winter, then disappears for months before reappearing as the days shorten and temperatures drop. Asked in 1985 whether he had any advice for concerned mothers and fathers, Dr. Chanock said he did have an idea.

"One thing you can tell them is to have their babies in the spring," he said. "I say this somewhat facetiously, but there's a grain of truth to it."

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