X. From passivity to action
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From passivity to action 97  Chapter X From passivity to action The world of science may be the only existing participatory democracy. Science is an immensely supportive activity. Its support is both intellectual — the sharing of knowledge — and emotional — the sharing of purpose. — Salvador Luria A pivotal year On a breezy day in March 1985, while making his rounds of the academic research institutions, Julius Vida, a licensing director from BristolMyers , appeared in De Clercq’s office and asked if there is any product he would like to develop together with the American drug maker. He was a most agreeable man who knew how to impress De Clercq with his soft spot for chemistry. Vida had studied with the renowned scientist, Robert Woodward, at Harvard who was considered the most artful of master chemists in his era. Long before he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry he had become a cult figure among scientists, even his idiosyncrasies, like his fixation with the color blue, were legendary. With his old-world charm, Julius Vida belonged to the more sophisticated kind of Americans. He introduced De Clercq to top class restaurants in Brussels where cuisine and fine wines fused together like sublime chemistry, places where a young university professor would not often set foot. But on one of their outings, De Clercq accidentally said too much. He spoke of a new class of antiviral compounds and had to hold his tongue so as not to give away any more details until the compounds were properly patented and enshrined in a publication. “Come back next year,” he told Vida, who immediately responded with an invitation to visit Bristol-Myers in the United States. 98 Cold War Triangle The discovery of a new class of antiviral compounds, the acyclic nucleoside phosphonates, was one of De Clercq’s most thrilling experiences . Holý’s compounds, HPMPA and PMEA, had come to life in the assay systems that his first Japanese postdoctoral fellow, Takashi Sakuma, had introduced in Leuven.1 De Clercq had been working with Holý unabatedly for almost a decade. They seldom saw each other, except for a few international conferences like the FEBS meeting in 1978 and the intimate workshop in Kyoto, Japan with seven other chemists and the Nobel Prize winner Khorana, in 1982. Most of their collaborative work was done over the phone or by correspondence . This time, however, he had to share his joy with Tony Holý in person. He accepted to act as chairman of a symposium on virology in Bechyne Castle not far from Prague. It was a good excuse to visit his friend at the IOCB and celebrate their invention in one of Holý’s favorite restaurants: the century-old Red Wheel, near the convent of St. Agnes, the patron saint of Bohemia. It was also another opportunity to bring compounds to Leuven; his coat stuffed with plenty of new vials. It was precisely in these happy times that De Clercq was struck the most dreadful blow he had ever experienced, with the sudden and unexpected news that his boss, Piet De Somer, had died. The abrupt loss of a legend left him and everybody else in Leuven in a profound state of shock. De Somer looked so vigorous not long before when he was hosting the Polish pope, John-Paul II, in Leuven. Never before had a pope visited this University, the oldest of all Catholic universities in the world.2 A few weeks before De Somer died, the United States beckoned De Clercq with travels to Bristol-Myers, a lecture at the US Army Medical research facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland and an urgent invitation from Sam Broder at the National Cancer Institute. At the NCI, a group of about fifty scientists with only a few Europeans, discussed whether there was an agent which could be effective against replication of the AIDS virus. Sam Broder did not say much about the human trials the NCI had been conducting with suramin. The very first drug to act against a retrovirus showed promise in the lab. When tested on patients, the decrease in viral load was impressive indeed but the side effects from the weekly injections were just too toxic. Broder shared his consternation over the pharmaceutical companies in the US. Not a single one was interested in looking for From passivity to action 99  a drug against AIDS! He had called all of them, from the largest to the smallest start-up, but all claimed there was...


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