Today we submitted our second grant application for support of our research on Zika virus. This one was sent to the March of Dimes, an organization with the goal of improving the health of mothers and babies. It’s somewhat ironic that we seek support from this organization, which was founded in 1938 by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support research on poliovirus. After the successful development of two poliovirus vaccines, the March of Dimes turned its attention to birth defects. Although I have worked on poliovirus for most of my career, our research was never supported by the March of Dimes.
Franklin Roosevelt had contracted polio in 1921, which left him with permanent leg paralysis. This event, coupled with the increasing numbers of children who were stricken with polio each year, inspired him and his friend Basil O’Connor in 1927 to form the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The March of Dimes was the name of the foundation’s annual fundraising event, during which children were encouraged to mail a dime to the White House (there were also booths set up in major cities to receive the coins). I can’t imagine a similar fundraising effort being encouraged today—but neither can I see a paralyzed person elected as President.
The money raised by the March of Dimes—over half a billion dollars—was used to support fundamental research on poliovirus that was needed to develop vaccines. Information such as the number of poliovirus serotypes (three), the fact that antibody generated after a single infection protected against infection for many years, the presence of virus in the blood and stool—these were some of the many findings supported by National Foundation dollars. The research programs of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, which led to the two poliovirus vaccines which are still used today (IPV and OPV) and which have nearly eradicated polio, were also supported by the National Foundation.
After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the dime was redesigned to include his image. The reason why that coin was selected should be obvious.
After the two poliovirus vaccines proved so successful in reducing poliomyelitis, the National Foundation changed its focus in the 1960s to include birth defects. Development of a vaccine against rubella virus, which causes a variety of birth defects including deafness, blindness, and mental retardation, was supported by the National Foundation. The name of the organization was changed in 1976 to the March of Dimes, and by the time I started my laboratory at Columbia University in 1982, they no longer supported research on poliovirus.
Today the home page of the March of Dimes website is entirely devoted to Zika virus. As a newly discovered cause of birth defects, including microcephaly, the virus is a perfect target for March of Dimes funding. We have written a grant proposal for experiments to determine not only how Zika virus infection causes brain defects in the developing embryo, but also to provide information on brain development.
I hope we will be successful in securing funds from the March of Dimes to work on Zika virus. Either way, knowing the important role the organization played in controlling my virus—poliovirus—it’s satisfying to finally be able to apply for their support.