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Kapikian To Give Director's Lecture, June 28

Many parents may not be aware that the rotavirus is the single most important cause of life-threatening diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide. Diarrheal illnesses in general are a major cause of illness and death in developing countries and are a significant cause of illness in developed countries.

In the NIH Director's Lecture on June 28, Dr. Albert Z. Kapikian, head of the epidemiology section of NIAID's Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, will present his talk, "Etiology, Epidemiology and Prevention of Viral Gastroenteritis." This Wednesday Afternoon Lecture will be held in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10 at 3 p.m.

Dr. Albert Kapikian

Until 1972, the cause of most cases of diarrheal illness was unknown. Bacteria and parasites could be identified as the cause in only a small proportion of cases. In the 1950's and 1960's, the "golden age" of virology, scientists developed a technology that enabled them to detect more than 100 different viruses in tissue culture. However, researchers could not identify the viruses that cause gastrointestinal disease.

Enter Kapikian. In 1957, he joined NIAID as a commissioned officer in the Public Health Service. In 1967, he was appointed to his current position. In the early 1970's, he adapted a new technique, immune electron microscopy, to visualize and characterize viruses in stool samples.

But Kapikian still had to find out which of these viruses was causing which disease. To do this, he used epidemiologic techniques to study blood samples from people recovering from diarrheal disease. Once sick people reach the convalescent stage of an illness, their immune system has produced huge numbers of antibodies engaged in fighting off the virus. Kapikian found that by identifying the specific antibodies in the patients' blood, he could accurately identify the associated virus. Thus, using a combination of scientific methodologies in 1972, Kapikian discovered, identified and visualized the Norwalk virus, the first human virus to be associated with acute epidemic gastroenteritis. This work ushered in a new era in the study of the cause of viral gastroenteritis. In addition, in 1973, using immune electron microscopy, Kapikian and two colleagues were the first to visualize and identify the virus that causes hepatitis A. One year later, in studies in infants and young children hospitalized with diarrhea, he detected and visualized human rotavirus. This was the first reported detection in the U.S. of human rotavirus, which was discovered in Australia in 1973.

Since that time, prevention of rotavirus infection has been the focus of Kapikian's work. He has single-mindedly kept his sights on the development of a rotavirus vaccine for more than 25 years. The oral, four-strain vaccine that resulted, and is now being refined, has the potential to prevent innumerable cases of severe diarrheal illnesses throughout the world and the approximately 870,000 deaths annually in infants and young children in developing countries.

Kapikian's achievements have been heralded with numerous awards, including the 1998 Pasteur Award from the Children's Vaccine Initiative. Earlier in his career, he received the Public Health Service Meritorious Service Medal (twice) and Distinguished Service Medal; the Queens College Distinguished Alumnus of the Year (1974) award and its honorary D.Sc. (1999); the 1974 Stitt Award of the U.S. Association of Military Surgeons; the 1987 Behring Diagnostics Award of the American Society for Microbiology; and the 1993 Diagnostic Virology (Murex) Award of the Pan American Society for Clinical Virology.

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, NIH acting director, will introduce Kapikian. All are welcome. For more information call Hilda Madine, 594-5595.

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