Monday, September 24, 2012

AZT, Penicillin,Sulfa : Mr Romney, 47% of life-saving drugs were once written off as "useless"

Romney "latinoing-up" for votes
Asking who invented AZT, like asking who invented Penicillin or Sulfa drugs, is entirely missing the really important point : which is "who exactly first discovered their life saving qualities?"

The people who first discovered Penicillin and AZT and Sulfa (and Carbolic Acid et al) did not in fact discover and prove-up their uniquely tremendous life-saving qualities : that credit belongs to other people.

Many famous drugs once part of Romney's "unfit" 47%

And there is a current lesson here : not a medical one - but a political one - because this ties in very closely indeed to the 2012 American Presidential election.

Many famous drugs, as well as many unfortunate American citizens, can fit---temporarily --- into Mitt Romney's 47%.

One minute a drug is down and not paying any federal income tax (and so is written off for all time by Romney and Ryan) ---- the next minute it is up --- up in the lineup to get a Nobel from the King of Sweden and wondering how it is going to tax-shelter all the billions it is making.

Some very famous drugs were discovered twice : once as a useless chemical and only later as a marvellous life saver.

Fairness demands (even if  if the black and white simplicity of contemporary journalism does not) that the credit for them be shared.

Shared between those who discovered or invented the original substance and with those who (much) later decided to try it out to save lives in unexpected applications - often against the opposition of their more cautious colleagues.

Pause from thinking of Romney's strange new Latino tan - please - to honor the memory of Jerome Horwitz who died, unnoticed and unhonored, on September 6th of this year.

In 1964, Horwitz came up with a promising theory of drug therapy that he thought might help conquer cancer. He and his colleagues synthesized "almost but not quite perfect" analogues of a common building block used by life in creating DNA.

Horwitz hoped these drugs (AZT being by far the best known) would act as a Trojan horse and confuse cancer cells into using it to try and build new DNA.

The effort would falter and then the cancer cells would cease to multiply - effectively halting the cancer growth in its tracks.

Unfortunately AZT failed to work - in cancer cells - and Horwitz put it on the shelves - unpatented.

But not before publishing his FAILURE in the open public literature.

In the success-oriented world of Science (rather like the stock market) it takes courage for a scientist to admit failure and for a journal editor to publish that admission of failure : kudos to both for doing so.

Cut to 20 years later, AIDS is in full blown attack and every smart pharma company is in hot pursuit of finding a cure.

A traditional and time tested method is "brute force science" : mindlessly try every known chemical against the HIV virus, on the off chance that one will work, despite roomfuls of Nobel Prize winners standing around whining "that it won't work /don't bother".

Ten thousand (relatively un-expensive, very unimaginative) experiments later, sometimes something totally unexpected and totally wonderful happens.

As it did for Burroughs Wellcome . They patented AZT when the results showed it slowed HIV , AIDS was seemingly repelled - at least among those who could afford their patented marvel - and they made billions in profits.

Horwitz got none of that money and little of the acclaim that AZT garnered.

But he will get someday get wide acclaim - sadly only now that he is dead - because his line of research is indeed working on a broad front against many viruses, not just against HIV.

And successes against viruses (outside of vaccines and Mom's advice of lots of bed rest and lots of fluids)  are rare enough to cheer to the rafters.

So why is Horwitz ,the discoverer that AZT doesn't cure cancer, ignored and why is Michael Heidelberger, the discoverer that Sulfa don't save lives, also ignored? When Fleming ,the discoverer that penicillin won't save lives, is among the best known, best loved scientists of all time.

Why mostly because popular journalism is not in fact Rocket Science or Brain Surgery. It is not particularly rational or scientific or sophisticated: its priority is to tell uncomplicated - simple - compelling stories while remaining willing to use the facts ----- but only if they fit that simple narrative.

Alexander Fleming, Paul Gelmo, Jerome Horwitz do all deserve some fame for penicillin, Sulfa drugs and AZT : but so do Martin Henry Dawson, Gerhard Domagk and the nameless boffins at Burroughs Wellcome ---- the guys who first used those useless inventions to save useful lives.

Naturally, as a patient and not a chemist, I am profoundly biased : I honor much more those who save lives then those who merely invent or discover chemicals.

Don't you wish your average journalist started thinking more like a patient and less like a chemist when they appropriate honor ?

After all their readers are almost certainly likely to be patients sometimes in their lives but very few will ever be chemists.

And don't you wish Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would ponder the "down and then up" life stories of Sulfa, penicillin and AZT before they write off the human 47% for all time ?

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