VI. From interferon to nucleosides
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From interferon to nucleosides 63  Chapter VI From interferon to nucleosides The progress of science is strewn, like an ancient desert trail, with the bleached skeletons of discarded theories which once seemed to possess eternal life. — Arthur Koestler A first encounter with nucleosides The dwindling interest in the induction of interferon suited Erik De Clercq very well. De Somer allowed him to broaden his interests and travel. Erik eagerly jumped on the occasion to go to Bulgaria in 1971 to attend an annual conference of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS). It was Erik De Clercq’s first encounter with a relatively new organization at that time, FEBS, the brainchild of British biochemical societies. Most of the members of those societies had taken part in the famous International Union of Biochemistry (IUB) congress held in Moscow in 1961. They still reveled in the fact that the congress had brought them into personal contact with so many of their counterparts. The problem was that the IUB congresses were held only every three years, with the nextconferencestobeheldinNewYorkandtheninTokyo.Suchlong-distance travel was not easy for younger biochemists who found it hard to keep up with foreign colleagues. So the idea of organizing a Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) began to germinate within the Oxford and Cambridge societies. They conceived a platform in 1964 with annual congresses, alternating between countries in the East and West. An important principle was that political, national and territorial considerations would be ignored. De Clercq was invited to Varna, a seaside resort on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, where the 1971 FEBS conference was held. Advertisements 64 Cold War Triangle had promised a “Communist Riviera” with golden beaches, so he took his wife Lili along. Reality was rather different. The grayness and dirt matched the images of gloom and doom that filtered through other stories about Eastern Europe. It was nevertheless in Varna that De Clercq met one of the most prestigious American chemists, Bill Prusoff, who was based at Yale University. Prusoff had acquired quite some fame for the nucleosides drug he had synthesized in 1959. It was supposed to be a cancer fighting agent, but a biologist, Ernest C. Hermann, later discovered it was in fact an antiviral. But it was the chemist who synthesized the drug, not the biologist, who would be hailed as the father of the first antiviral drug, a nucleoside. And thus, Prusoff entered medical history. It was also in Varna that Erik De Clercq met David Shugar, the head of the Biophysics Department at the University of Warsaw. Shugar was an important player in the organization to bring scientists from East and West together. He had organized the first FEBS meeting. The meeting in Warsaw in 1964 was attended by more than a thousand scientists. It was considered nothing short of a miracle to bring so many distinguished scientists together in a country behind the Iron Curtain. David Shugar had a warm heart for anything Belgian, perhaps due to the fact that Ghent University had awarded him an honorary doctorate .1 The pipe-smoking Canadian had a tumultuous past. He had been charged in the early 1950s in connection with espionage activities. The affair was triggered by the defection of a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa who accused Shugar of overly close contacts with Soviet diplomats. Even though he was never convicted of any wrongdoing, the investigations and the publicity damaged his career irrevocably. He was tarnished with the spy label despite being guilty of nothing more than “infatuation with communism.” After he moved to France, authorities there started to harass him, so he fled to Belgium. In Brussels, the wealthy Errera family and their legendary salon gatherings introduced him to the school of Jean Brachet and his nucleic acid chemistry.2 Brachet influenced Shugar profoundly. Still, he did not feel safe in Belgium and the local police soon started questioning him as well. McCarthyism had long tentacles and only his native Poland could grant him a safe harbor. When he was offered a position at Warsaw From interferon to nucleosides 65  University, he gladly accepted and became perhaps the only scientist during the Cold War who fled from West to East. Erik De Clercq and David Shugar became close friends. They immediately started to work out a plan whereby Shugar would send him polynucleotides to be tested and analyzed at the Rega Institute. Shugar, who was a physicist by training and a recent convert to biology...


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