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Enzymes: the secret of life as chemistry 55 Chapter V Enzymes: the secret of life as chemistry Nothing is sacred in science; you give up the old when you find something new that is better. — Thomas Rivers At Stanford, a new world opens up It seemed the whole village of Hamme had come to the airport to wave the newly-wedded couple goodbye as they embarked on their trip to San Francisco. Friends and family were very proud of Erik De Clercq, the bright young medical doctor, but also of his lovely bride, Lili, who had grown up in the village apothecary just around the corner from Erik’s family home. Lili herself was an accomplished pharmacist. It was a marriage made in heaven, bathed in an aura of chemistry. The honeymoon kicked off to a thrilling start. Neither Erik nor Lili were experienced travelers and flying in a plane was an absolute novelty. The last leg of the trip, from San Francisco airport to Palo Alto by helicopter, filled their stomach with butterflies. Gazing down at the verdant landscape, they were totally overwhelmed by the beauty of the hills undulating like the Tuscan countryside in Italian renaissance paintings. De Clercq had received a fellowship to come to the Stanford Medical Center in 1968 and work in the laboratory of the Infectious Diseases division .1 The Director was the quick-witted Tom Merigan, one of the youngest professors at Stanford at that time and only a few years older than his postdoctoral fellow. Merigan and his wife could not have been more welcoming as they helped the honeymooners settle into their new home in the California hills. The balmy weather, the sun burning off the fog that rolled in from the Pacific Ocean, a house surrounded by exotic flowers 56 Cold War Triangle and a swimming pool made it seem like paradise. Stanford University was more sedate than Berkeley, which just across the Oakland Bridge had become the epicenter of student protests against the Vietnam War. The flower power movement and hippies in nearby San Francisco seemed far away. Erik De Clercq was consumed by his research and the task of absorbing new knowledge. His bride was almost as passionate as he was, transcribing during the night with an old fashioned typewriter the notes he had made during the day. Merigan and De Clercq were fascinated by the startling news that had just come out of the Merck laboratory.2 Maurice Hilleman had found that certain nucleic acids could induce interferon both in cell cultures and in laboratory animals on a much larger scale than was ever thought possible .3 This had an immediate effect on just about every laboratory that was investigating viral diseases. A decade after the discovery of interferon, most scientists were eager to work on the induction of interferon, which became the new wave in research.4 The ultimate goal was to find clusters of nucleic acids or polynucleotides that could be used as drugs in humans. Merigan had abandoned his production of fibroblast interferon in order to jump on the inducer bandwagon. Chemists in his wide network of contacts sent him all kinds of compounds to be tested in his lab. De Clercq seized the case like a detective on a hunt. During one of his lab tests, he found that the compounds made by Fritz Eckstein at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen were surprisingly powerful inducers.5 The discovery was published by De Clercq, Eckstein and Merigan in Science and in the Chemical and Engineering Magazine which won them instant acclaim.6 A patent for these interferon inducers was not far behind and preparations were made for the legal paperwork to be signed together with Fritz Eckstein. In the legal labyrinth at Stanford, Erik’s name as co-inventor on the patent had been left out and was only reinstated after Eckstein’s insistence. But the compound never became a drug. It never went further than a hot and uncomfortably humid visit to Philadelphia to meet with Wyeth, the company which bought the license but never produced the drug. The frustrating effort had nevertheless yielded one blessing: Erik had acquired a new friend, Fritz Eckstein, who introduced him a few years later to chemists who would open new doors in his professional life. In Tom Merigan’s lab, De Clercq not only learned to protect his patent Enzymes: the secret of life as chemistry 57 rights but also acquired the all-important...


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