Monday, August 30, 2010

Brotzu 'does the clinical' that Florey and Fleming didn't

You know the mantra if you have ever read a taxpayer-funded article from an academic historian about post-war science.

It was 1945's Manhattan Project and the Synthesis of Penicillin that led to the birth of Big Science.

 (All bow down and worship.)

It now takes lashings of taxpayers' money and large teams of scientists to lead to big breakthroughs these days, particularly in drug research.

Hard then to explain the actions of Giuseppe Brotzu, full time mayor and part time medical scientist of Cagliari Sardinia during the hot summer days of July 1945.

Sardinia was not then and is not today a hotbed of scientific research - in a word, it was as Non-U as a place could be.

Not the sort of place to attract the big money and big teams of Big Science.

Nevertheless, world-shaking research starts with big ideas, not big money or big name scientists.

Brotzu's big idea begins when he wonders if the relative resistance that his citizens display to endemic typhoid fever is because of something in the harbour water - specifically something in the water near the raw sewer outflow into that harbour.

His big idea pays off and he discovers the first of the (ever-expanding) cephalosporin family of antibiotics - a trillion dollar industry - even bigger than the original penicillin .

Our mayor gets turned down by the big scientists in Rome - wrong party, wrong ideas.

So he grows some of his sewer fungi  by using boiled placentas- from the maternity ward - as his medium, this is wartime Italy after all.

He then injects some of the raw liquid given off by this fungus into patients and finds it brings relief to people with typhoid fever.

Ie Brotzu does in 1945 what Fleming in 1928 and Florey in 1938 failed to do - he tests his discovery promptly , first via animal protection tests and then on real human patients.

Still no interest, so he creates a fake medical journal and gets a copy to Britain.

Florey's team, to its credit, is interested.

This, appropriately enough for a story set in Southern Italy, is truly "Operatic" Science and is not at all "Dignified" Science.

But our mayor's obvious agape love of his citizens led him to do some heroic things and he ended up helping to save millions of lives in the years since.

I think Martin Henry Dawson would have admired him very much....

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