IV. The sixties in Leuven and Prague
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The sixties in Leuven and Prague 47  Chapter IV The sixties in Leuven and Prague If Politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble. Both are immensely practical-minded affairs. — Sir Peter Medawar Antiviral penicillin Vaccines to prevent attacks from viruses remained the prime focus of the Rega Institute throughout the sixties. Piet De Somer, however, wanted to look beyond prevention and search for a treatment. Once a viral disease had developed, there was no medicine available in those days.1 Blocking a virus before it multiplies inside its host became De Somer’s other fixation .2 He took a keen interest in a young Scottish virologist, Alick Isaacs, who was working at the National Institute for Medical Research in North London. Isaacs and Jean Lindenmann, a Swiss doctoral fellow, had discovered a new biological substance that could interfere with a virus replication. The two had been testing the behavior of chick cells after exposing them to a killed influenza virus. A substance appeared in the cells that prevented live influenza virus from growing. They had identified the substance as a protein but did not yet know whether it was produced by the virus or by the cell. They named the protein “interferon” for its mysterious interfering activity .3 Isaacs and Lindenmann explained in their articles, why no antibiotics to kill viruses had been discovered so far: To a large extent this is because viruses are extremely small parasites which are obliged to live inside cells, and it has not been possible to find a substance which would stop viruses from growing without at the same time harming the host cells. Interferon is the name which has 48 Cold War Triangle been given to a new substance which prevents the growth of a number of viruses without apparently causing any gross damage to the cells. Interferon does not kill the viruses, but stops them from multiplying.4 Isaacs sent their articles to every prominent virologist he could think of. He received enormous press coverage in part because he had tagged the new substance with a powerful cultural symbol, the potential of becoming an “antiviral penicillin.” The comparison reopened wounds of the penicillin trauma in the United Kingdom. Penicillin was still perceived as a British discovery that had been given free of charge to the United States during the war, while the British people on the other hand had to pay royalties to American commercial firms for every gram of penicillin they sold to the British market.5 The British Medical Research Council did not want a repeat of the penicillin-affair to be repeated. The National Institute for Medical Research was not to waste any time and start a collaboration with three pharmaceutical companies working in the UK. The international virology community was not as receptive. The cool reaction from eminent virologists was striking. Some started nicknaming interferon “misinterpreton” meaning the substance was probably a leftover virus particle, an abortive product of virus multiplication. Isaacs and Lindenmann, both physicians with only a modest knowledge of chemistry , were heavily criticized. Their vagueness as to the nature and mode of action of the novel substance made it extremely difficult to reproduce the results they had reported. Isaacs’s work nevertheless caught the attention of the recent Nobel Prize winner, John Enders.6 He had also observed a protein blocking virus multiplication. At first he had called it an “inhibitory factor” but was now re-naming this biological fact as “interferon.” This came as a tremendous boost for Isaacs. The event was witnessed by one of De Somer’s co-workers , Edward De Maeyer, who had been sent as a postdoctoral fellow to Enders’s laboratory in Boston.7 Now that interferon had been endorsed by such an eminent personality ,itreceivedanenthusiasticwelcomeinLeuven.Isaacswashailedahero and an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University was bestowed upon him in early 1962.8 The ritual and festivities around this award underscoredthenewdirectiontheRegaInstitutewastofollow .TheInstitute The sixties in Leuven and Prague 49  was being retooled to become one of the premier interferon centers on the continent. The buzzwords “antiviral penicillin,” and “broad spectrum magic bullet” against many viral diseases, were music to the ears of De Somer. Would he be able to repeat his earlier success when, unburdened by royalties, RIT was able to produce its own penicillin? This what was probably on his mind when he travelled to Smolenice Castle near Bratislava, Slovakia in 1964 to attend the first international conference on interferon...


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