A brilliant and determined visionary saves lives and helps develop a new medical discipline
The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases has honored Myron M. (Mike) Levine, M’67, with the 2017 Maxwell Finland Award for Scientific Achievement for his outstanding contributions to infectious disease and vaccinology, as well as his excellence in research and training, which have had enormous impact on global public health and will continue to pay dividends for millions of individuals in the future.
Levine’s latest contribution to improving public health is the live cholera vaccine, created and tested under his leadership, and recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“I always had an interest in the developing world and what we then called tropical medicine and tropical pediatrics,” Levine says. “I was also an addict for flying light planes. My early goals was to be a member of the flying doctor’s service in East Africa.”
Through the Center for Vaccine Development, the academic vaccine development enterprise that he founded in 1974 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, his research has encompassed disease burden measurement, bacterial pathogenesis studies, design and creation of vaccine candidates, clinical studies to test the safety of vaccine candidates and their ability to elicit relevant immune responses, and large-scale field trials to assess vaccine efficacy.
Once vaccines are licensed, Levine collaborates with industry and public health authorities to facilitate their introduction into target populations and to measure their impact on disease burden and safety.
Alongside his landmark research, Levine has also developed courses and mentored scores of individuals who now hold leading positions in academia, research institutes, United Nations agencies and industry. His children are among them. Though he says neither he nor his wife Suzanne, a pediatric nurse and 1963 alumna of the School of Nursing, urged them toward the field, all three now have careers in global health and medicine — the Levine family business.
A ‘walking atlas’
Levine was born in Riverdale, New York, a quiet residential neighborhood in the northwest Bronx. Ironically, for someone who would spend his entire adult life working on global infectious diseases, by age 16 the farthest he had traveled was a few hundred miles to visit his mother’s relatives. But as a child he voraciously read books on the history of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America and was jokingly called a “walking atlas” because of his detailed knowledge of world geography.
His interest in the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases in developing countries was already fervent when he arrived on the MCV Campus in the 1960s. Although there were few opportunities for global health experiences in those days, the entrepreneurial spirit and skills Levine would demonstrate throughout his career drove him to arrange four separate electives, each accompanied by a student fellowship that included travel, living expenses and a stipend, and each spanning several months during each of his four years of medical school.
He studied in Israel (1964), Paris (1965), Costa Rica (1966) and Pakistan (1967) where a major smallpox epidemic erupted that provided him with a clinical experience that kindled a life-long intellectual interest in smallpox. Likewise, his interest in cholera was sparked around the same time during a stay at the Cholera Research Laboratory in Dhaka, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). These consecutive international experiences indelibly imprinted and reinforced his early interests.
Forty years of scientific achievements
Levine joined the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1973. One year later, he founded the Center for Vaccine Development and served as its director for the next 40 years. Though he stepped down as director in 2015, Levine remains on faculty with the university.
From basic vaccine research to vaccine field trials and impact measurement, Levine’s work has had worldwide impact.
For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, emerging technologies incriminated many new bacterial, viral and protozoal agents as causes of diarrhea. By the turn of the millennium, so many new etiologic agents had been identified that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided Levine with $50 million in support to quantify the burden and identify the most important pathogens associated with moderate-to-severe diarrheal disease in children younger than age 5 years.
The BMGF-funded Global Enteric Multicenter Study was carried out in four sites in sub-Saharan Africa and three in South Asia where collectively 80 percent of diarrheal disease deaths occur globally in children under age 5 years. The study’s findings have had a powerful influence on research priorities and on the implementation of vaccines and other interventions.
A determined scientist responds to global public health needs
Levine’s leadership has been sought repeatedly by the World Health Organization. In 1975, he was in Bangladesh — the last country in Asia to eliminate smallpox — when smallpox transmission was interrupted. And as recently as 2014, when the devastating epidemic of Ebola struck West Africa, he was asked to organize Phase 1 clinical trials of one Ebola vaccine in Mali and assist in a historic Phase 3 efficacy field trial in Guinea of another.
He has received many honors for his work including the Rank of “Grand Officer of the National Order of Mali” from the President of Mali, an honor traditionally bestowed only upon heads of state. In 2007, the VCU School of Medicine honored him with its Outstanding Medical Alumnus Award.
“Mike Levine sets a goal and does not stop until he reaches it,” says Kathy Neuzil, M.D., M.P.H., FIDSA, who succeeds him as only the second director of the CVD, and marvels at his unfailing energy and work ethic. “He outworks everyone in the room and shows no signs of slowing down!”
And that is very good news for the future of global public health.
You can read more about Levine’s career as a pioneer of the modern discipline of vaccinology in a profile published in the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases 2017 awards program and in the blog post “Celebrating Infectious Disease Heroes.”