Image of a cell

Robert J. Huebner

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For contributions to the modern understanding of the biology of viruses and their role in the induction of diverse diseases.

Growing up on a farm, Robert J. Huebner noticed how tiny drops of rain slowly contributed to land erosion. In a 1965 interview with Life Magazine, he related the phenomena to the fragility of life:

“Human erosion isn’t a simple thing,” he said. “It’s the result of the interplay of many factors, many raindrops, but I strongly suspect that among them are the virus agents.”

Huebner dedicated his career to this suspicion, discovering viruses that cause respiratory illnesses in children and pinpointing cytomegaloviruses, which cause infections for patients with AIDS.

Through his research, Huebner determined that certain viruses trigger genes – which he named oncogenes – to cause cells to grow abnormally into cancerous tumors.

With this knowledge, he persuaded the government to allocate $60 million for cancer research.

The existence of the oncogene, later corroborated by others, also prompted the development of life-saving vaccines for conditions including Hepatitis B.