VIII. The first antiviral drugs
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The first antiviral drugs 79  Chapter VIII The first antiviral drugs Most scientific discoveries belong to a continuous, collective process of exploration of nature rather than a series of individual explosions of imagination. — Salvador Luria NATO supports a nucleosides network Erik De Clercq was introduced to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its Advanced Study Institutes in the most enjoyable way. He was selected to travel to the idyllic Greek island of Corfu together with about a hundred other investigators. The workshop tackled antiviral mechanisms and attracted a fine group of medical doctors and virologists.1 De Clercq’s old friend, David Shugar, was one of the stars of the meeting. Nobody paid any attention to the fact that his scientific homestead was based in Poland, not exactly a NATO country at the time. His Canadian passport was all he needed to gain a spot at the speaker’s podium. Another researcher from the National Institutes of Health, Robert Gallo, then barely forty years old, caught De Clercq’s attention. He had plenty of nervous energy. Erik immediately felt he was a kindred spirit, one of the few people who shared his passion for retroviruses. A retrovirus with its unique enzyme was a hot topic for scientists in the early 1970s, but a few years later no longer seemed interesting. It was considered to be at the periphery of the grand questions of modern biology. Gallo, however , was determined to prove that retroviruses could disrupt not only animals but also humans. He was on a hunt to find at least one retrovirus that caused cancer in humans.2 Gallo was immediately interested in Erik’s discovery of a substance that was active against the Moloney murine leukemia virus, an animal retrovirus. The substance could contain the replication of the retrovirus, 80 Cold War Triangle but unfortunately had no effect on the cancer cells.3 Its common name was suramin, a compound known since the 1920s and used in treatment of African sleeping sickness, a tropical disease caused by microscopic parasites. Rather than dismissing De Clercq’s findings, Gallo encouraged Erik to publish this story in his Journal Cancer Letters. Gallo’s suggestion came as a total surprise. So far, no publisher had shown any interest in De Clercq’s findings on polynucleotides and retroviruses. The reviewers claimed that its enzyme, reverse transcriptase, had no biological relevance. De Clercq’s article appeared in one of the Journal’s 1979 issues. Five years later, it would suddenly come to the fore when NIH scientists were desperately seeking a means to combat another retrovirus, the AIDS virus. After their meeting in Göttingen, Richard Walker and Fritz Eckstein asked Erik De Clercq to join them in developing a nucleosides network. The three men felt it was important for scientists to step out of the laboratory , confront theories and exchange test results with people coming from different backgrounds. Rather than confining scientists to their field of expertise, their platform would bring together virologists, chemists, pharmacologists, clinicians, and representatives of the pharma industry. Richard Walker brought his experience from the publishing world to the table. Fritz added his prestige and that of the Max Planck Institute, while Erik would take care of all administrative questions. With that, they started working on their common project. All they needed now was to find an attractive place in relaxed and pleasant surroundings for their meetings. And what could be better than the Italian countryside? Searching for ways to fund these gatherings, De Clercq’s experience in Corfu served as an inspiring model. NATO’s scientific affairs division would be a perfect partner. It provided the funding and means to gather scientists from both sides of the Atlantic. For young scientists, it was truly a blessing to participate in such a forum. In the seventies and eighties , communications were still rudimentary. The personal computer and internet were not yet commonplace. The photocopier and fax machine were the only sophisticated devices available at that time. The NATO administrators set strict conditions: The Advanced Study Institute(ASI)couldonlyincludescientistsfromNATOmembercountries; no country, not even the US, could be overrepresented with more than The first antiviral drugs 81  twenty participants. One truly remarkable rule was that the study courses had to take place over a period of at least ten days. It was believed that a minimum of ten days together was necessary to build the kind of lasting relationships that can serve as a cornerstone for productive science. Walker, Eckstein and De Clercq...