I. Leuven: a hotbed for antiviral research
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Leuven: a hotbed for antiviral research 21  Chapter I Leuven: a hotbed for antiviral research A true fundamental researcher is an introvert who takes pleasure in looking for answers to questions that nobody asked. — Piet De Somer The cross-fertilization between academia and pharma In the early years of World War II, the small university town of Leuven was suffering badly from the Nazi occupation. The Germans had again ransacked its world-famous library, which had been devastated during the First World War. In a drafty old building, a young researcher named Piet De Somer and his boss were studying the behavior of a strain of penicillium they had smuggled from the Netherlands.1 They were fascinated by reports that it could produce a new infection-fighting drug. British war broadcasts and Swiss medical journals had revealed that American companies were producing a miracle drug based on a discovery by the Pathology School of Oxford University.2 Unlike their British counterparts, the Americans had sensed the strategic importance of this discovery and alerted the Roosevelt Administration. In 1941, the production of penicillin became part of an urgent government-industry venture with the sole purpose of making the drug available to the troops so that soldiers would not perish from infectious diseases. Producing penicillin seemed simple enough; it required cultivating an omnipresent penicillin mold similar to the one that had accidentally contaminated Alexander Fleming’s bacterial culture.3 The British discovery as such was not patented. The technical protocol on how to mass-produce and extract the penicillin from the culture fluid, however, was guardedly protected by the American pharmaceutical industry. Secrecy surrounded 22 Cold War Triangle the penicillin production even after the war was over. Hospitals and doctors in the rest of the world literally begged the Americans to obtain a few ounces of penicillin. Producing this drug on Belgian soil would become a matter of national pride.4 Piet De Somer’s boss and two fellow professors at the Catholic University were eager to take up the challenge. They were partners in a small company, Soprolac, an offshoot of a cheese company that doubled up as a pharmaceutical business. The byproduct of the cheese-making was used to produce Panferma, a medicinal water to treat all kinds of aches and pains. After Soprolac was purchased by a young Belgian industrialist active in the paper industry, the academic co-owners suddenly became partners in a much larger enterprise named RIT (Recherches et Industries Thérapeutiques).5 Piet De Somer was entrusted with their goal to produce penicillin. But he had one problem. His knowledge of chemistry was modest and purifying the product after he had cultured the mold was a complicated process. That is when his legendary charm came to the rescue. He befriended a fellow medical student, Christian de Duve, who was working on a Master’s degree in chemistry and needed a topic for his thesis. At that time, there were shortages in the lab, so they took discarded milk bottles from the former Soprolac plant to culture molds.6 De Somer and de Duve shuttled daily between Leuven and Genval to monitor their cultures. Communication and travelling were still very restrained in those days, but their trips were quite flamboyant. De Somer drove an Amilcar 1928, a racecar which had neither roof nor battery and needed a roller bearing crankshaft to jumpstart the car. Wherever they went, they were greeted with roaring laughter.7 De Duve succeeded with the purification and thus the first milligrams of penicillin were produced on Belgian soil. He eventually moved on to other research projects and later won the Nobel Prize in 1974, but he always kept fond memories of those wild times. The RIT co-owners realized that in order to produce larger yields of penicillin a “deep fermentation” method would be needed instead of the artisanal “surface culturing.” The American companies were not sharing information. However, the professors found a way to circumvent them. They had excellent contacts with the Director of Connaught Medical ResearchLaboratoriesinTorontowhohadjuststartedhisownproduction Leuven: a hotbed for antiviral research 23  of penicillin.8 In 1946, they dispatched Piet De Somer to Toronto where he was introduced to in-depth culture production of penicillin.9 He returned to Belgium a few months later and set up a small fermentation plant for RIT. Together with his co-workers, he spent the next few years working intensively on improving the mass-scale production of penicillin . Not encumbered by any license, it...