Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chain irks boss - puts snakes before lysozyme

When Ernst Chain was hired as the Dunn Pathology School's biochemist in the Spring of 1935, his new boss, Howard Florey only asked one specific thing of Chain.

Florey wanted him to determine the chemical action of Lysozyme, an enzyme that Florey thought might be the cause of ulcers (particularly his own ulcer!)

But Chain first turned to his own work on the chemical action of the enzyme that made some snake venoms so extraordinarily  and so quickly lethal in truly tiny amounts.

But now, in early 1936, he was made aware that someone he knew of very well indeed, a fellow German Jewish biochemist emigre he had met earlier in Berlin, Karl Meyer, had been and done up  Lysozyme already.

The papers had been submitted in late 1935 and a little research revealed that Meyer had already published on Lysozyme in the prestigious journal SCIENCE , based on work from 1933.

So Chain had to scramble - and from this date, he regarded Meyer as his biggest rival in studying lytic (dissolving) enzymes.

 What had happened was that both men, unaware of each other's interest, had settled on this same narrow area of science to base their life's work upon !

And since both men, plus plenty of others, mistakenly regarded penicillin as a lytic enzyme, a showdown was sure to come one day.

For both men, this 'guy thing' dueling over citation credit in a obscure backwater of science got badly away from them when it turned out penicillin had more than academic importance.

In the case of Meyer, he gave up the control of his penicillin project to his colleague Martin Henry Dawson.

He did so, when it became clear that powerful elements of the American and British governments were determined to see that Meyer was to play no role in the chemistry of penicillin.

 They indicated this by engaging in repeated acts of censorship of his publications and by firing his colleagues from the Schering Corporation of America.

Chain also lost his penicillin project to his boss Florey, when the animal studies of the substance suddenly got interesting.

(Florey was well known for letting you do all the heavy lifting on a project that you and him were supposedly jointly involved in, only to have him steal it from under you if something promising turned up.

 He got away with it, technically, because he was the senior investigator - but it hardly made him popular. 

And it explains why the lazy but likable Fleming got most of the credit for the Oxford team's work.)

But Florey had no interest in the clinical side of penicillin and quickly became just the administrator of the overall Oxford penicillin project, away from England almost more than he was home.

Now Chain could regain some control, by throwing himself into the 
work to purify and then totally synthesize penicillin - something Chain and the Oxford team did in February 1944.

But it turned out the yield was terrible and the process long , difficult and very expensive.

Meanwhile, Dawson had gotten his chosen corporate partner, Pfizer, morally committed to producing as much penicillin as possible as soon as possible.

That meant NATURAL (microbe-made) penicillin - the way we still produce all the various penicillins and beta lactam antibiotics.

In the end, Nature batted last and it batted long.

The supposedly simple, unchanging, (etc) creatures in the Domain of microbes vanquished the efforts of all the best PhDs in the human Domain of Chemistry.

Chain never returned to Lysozyme  - penicillin , even his failed 
synthetic efforts, still gave him a knighthood and a Nobel prize.

Why bother?

Meyer got no personal gain out of his four years of penicillin efforts - just personal heartaches.

But he had the quiet satisfaction that his personal efforts to save a few lives had moved Pfizer, the company that finally gave us the mass penicillin that saved millions of lives.

In 1946, the war over, Meyer turned back to Lysozyme, with his wartime research assistant on penicillin, Eleanor Chaffee ( now Hahnel) helping him.

Meyer kept up his work on Lysozyme and other lytic enzymes long past his formal retirement.

By then Chain, noticeably mellowing in his later years, had died.

Meyer , too, finally revealed his secret, the one he never told Chaffee, Dawson or Gladys Hobby.

He had originally embarked on penicillin merely to get back at Chain for failing to adequately credit him on his own Lysozyme work from way back in 1936.

This is truly Operatic Science - the way that Science all too often really works, if scientists would only admit it .....

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