Saturday, August 28, 2010

FLOREY's biggest mistake : Spring 1938-May 1940

Two wrongs can never make a right.

Millions of lives, literally, might have been saved if Alexander Fleming had only run a quick animal protection test with a mouse, a bit of staph bacteria and a needle full of his wet penicillin juice , back in October 1928.

It wasn't until about ten years later that sulfa drugs began to be universally available and regularly used - and even then they didn't work as well as penicillin.

The lives needlessly lost in that period have to be laid at Fleming's door.

Howard Florey and his entire Oxford University team never stopped criticizing Fleming for this elemental failure - as most people would have a full right to do.

But Florey and his team do not have that right.

For they failed to do the same thing they criticized Fleming for not doing,that bog simple animal protection test with wet penicillin juice, something they neglected to do from early Spring 1938 till May 1940.

They had the wet penicillin, the mice and the skill to do the test.

If they had done that test, we might have seen penicillin development work started in earnest by British drug firms in 1938, before the Munich Crisis, long before the fall of France in June 1940.

In which case the exciting wartime penicillin story might have ended happily before it even began.

Not until they had accomplished their  real goal - concentrating Fleming's impure 2-5 units per mg penicillin sticky brown toffee into a 2-5 units per mg dry brown powder - and claiming it was highly purified penicillin, did the Oxford University think about the all important animal protection test.

All the evidence is that while Ernest Chain was anxious to do it, Florey didn't think they had gone far enough along the so called purification route to move into stage two animal trials.

Chain had to force the issue - making Florey so angry that Chain never ever regained Florey's trust.

Here was Britain about to be invaded, civilization tottering in the balance and Florey was plodding through every scientific experiment in his rulebook, instead of cutting to the chase on a drug that might save many Britons lives.

He was thinking like a scientist ,not like a patriot - fair enough - a common failing among scientists - even during a war crisis.

But most scientists who think like that don't have the nerve to turn around and very publicly blame a colleague for failing to do what they themselves also failed to do.

It is things like this that make it very hard for me to stomach Howard Florey as a whole - though there are many things I do admire about the man.

And don't think I let Florey's many admiring biographers off any more lightly - how in the name of all that is holy do they justify admiring Florey for delaying that critical wet penicillin animal protection test  for more than two years?

The recent British television movie on Florey criticizes Fleming for never doing the animal test, but remains silent on why on earth Florey waited until well into the Battle of Britain crisis to 'poke the mouse'.

Fleming deserves to be blamed for some of his failings.

Fair enough.

But Florey needs to be held to the same high standard - I only wish Eric Lax and others had done so....

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