Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Duel begins: October 1940

By October 1940, Ernst Chain knew he was in the race of his lifetime over penicillin - and while he had a MD colleague who plodded, his rival's MD colleague obviously moved like greased lightning.

By that October, Chain had a copy of Leslie Epstein's finished paper on the Lysozyme work that Epstein had done with Chain at Oxford.

The paper thanked Karl Meyer at Columbia University for the help and the lab space that Epstein had received from him.

Meyer had done similar research on Lysozyme (an enzyme that dissolves certain bacteria) - but 4 years earlier - so attribution of priority was going to be a touchy issue for all three individuals.

In fact, incensed by Epstein informing him that Chain did not plan to properly credit Meyer's earlier work, Karl Meyer was determined to extract revenge by purifying penicillin before his rival did !

Chain and Meyer, both Germans and Jews and both biochemists interested in enzymes that dissolve substrates, had known each other back in Berlin biochemical circles in the mid 1920s.

They had become serious rivals in the mid-1930s , both publishing on lysozyme and on the 'spreading factor' that dissolved hydraluronic acid, (including the hydraluronic acid found as part of some bacteria).

Each new published article became like another dueling scar on the cheeks of rival german students.

Now penicillin also looked to be another enzyme that dissolved bacteria - a new point of rivalry.

Both unlike the earlier two, it seemed to have the potential to cure life-threatening diseases - and bring world fame to the biochemist connected to the first team that did so.

Now Meyer's MD colleague,Martin Henry Dawson, had written Chain, asking for some penicillin spores (enclosing a $5 international money order) and informing Chain he planned to use it on SBE,endocarditis, the Mount Everest of infectious disease.

Serious stuff --- clearly Meyer's team had been fully informed about Chain's two and half years of work on penicillin by Leslie Epstein.

Meanwhile Chain's MD colleague, Howard Florey, hadn't yet even started scaling up to the pilot plant size of production needed to treat human patients.

Chain did send some penicillin spores - eventually - spores that never produced penicillin.

Perhaps an accident - perhaps deliberate.

Too late - Dawson mailed him a letter on October 28th 1940 : Dawson had already gotten Fleming's spores from an American researcher , grown it, tested it and injected concentrated penicillin into two SBE patients on October 16th 1940.

Beaten to the punch.

All Chain could hope to do was to avoid being blamed for Epstein telling Meyer about the secret penicillin project, by not telling anyone about the Dawson letters

 That and then try to light a fire under Florey to 'do the clinical' as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, Chain had come to realize that Florey never did anything quickly......

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