Saturday, November 24, 2012

Wartime penicillin : patient-oriented or patent-oriented ?

MH Dawson
Martin Henry Dawson was Systemic Penicillin's earliest and biggest true believer. He ardently and publicly advocated producing 'second rate' penicillin for 'second rate' patients.

He didn't want to wait till systemic penicillin had been perfected, purified, synthesized, analyzed, patented, censored and marketed. Dr Dawson didn't want to wait till the war was long over before lives - on the battlefield and off - could start being saved. His only invention was moral : giving up his own life to fight for  patient-oriented, humanitarian, wartime penicillin.

He wanted penicillin , as it was at it point of development in September 1940, to go work right now, 24/7/365 saving patients.

He wanted penicillin's profit levels to be low enough so as to be cheap enough for all to afford and he wanted "second rate" penicillin to be abundant enough so that everyone, everywhere , from 1A soldier to 4F civilian, could have it.

To put it in terms from American organized medicine's internal political battle of the 1930s and early 1940s, Dawson promoted Social penicillin over War penicillin : humanitarian penicillin over penicillin as a weapon of war.

There has been much rubbish about penicillin patents written by historians , when really all there is to say is in that old saying " all roads lead to Rome" .

Just as there are many, many roads to Rome (but only one Rome), there are many alternative ways to grow, purify, test and apply natural penicillin - probably even alternatives ways to synthesize natural penicillin economically (when - and if - Man does that as well as Mold,  we will let you know.)

Almost anybody involved in the long drawn out saga of wartime penicillin who wanted to, could have had a patent on something or other.

Not particularly unique patents though --  hence not particularly valuable patents.

The big, unique, truly valuable patent - the 'Rome' patent - evaded its key searchers : Oxford University, Merck Pharmaceuticals and the American OSRD.

You couldn't patent natural penicillin, as it was in the Public Domain because the pencilliums' patent on it had run out hundreds of millions of years earlier.

So the scam was to create a 99.9% similar but ever so slightly different synthetic 'analog' ,(a so called "me too" drug) that would hopefully lead to penicillin being made much cheaper and much easier made than Man-Harnessing-Microbes could do.

The unconscious assumption, as we see now with 75 years of 20/20 hindsight, is that Man could inevitably make things cheaper in big chemical factories, than Nature could do it in its tiny biological factories.

But I digress.

It was safe to assume that sympathetic 1940s era patent examiners and judges would find this "me too" analog a truly new and patentable marvel, Man's wondrous powers for all to behold.

Then all who wanted the cheapest, easiest, penicillin would have to pay your steep licensing fees because you had a truly unique invention.

Actually I don't think the parties involved were only looking at short term patent profits but rather on much bigger, long term, "moral capital" gains for their firm, institution or university.

Lilly pharmaceuticals set them an example with insulin.

Lilly didn't hold the key original patent as the University of Toronto and Connaught Labs held that, but all the elites in the Medical and Big Pharma worlds knew the key work was actually done by Lilly and that Lilly seemed to consistently produce the best, safest insulin.

This profitable 'lead' in insulin research Lilly still holds, more 90 years later.

By force of myths and lies ( including doctoring photos in the Stalinist manner) , Oxford University and the entire Thames Valley is regarded as a biological Silicon Valley.

It has become a extremely wealthy and important part of the British economy, despite the fact that during World War Two, Oxford actually bet the farm on synthetic chemical, not biological,  penicillin and had also earlier ignored the pioneering work done in Britain on recombinant DNA !

But the artful myth that Oxford has weaved by focusing on the early labours to produce biological penicillin and ignoring the later, longer and bigger attempts to produce synthetic penicillin , has given it the moral capital to claim it led in producing wartime biological penicillin.

And they have been dining out on the myth ever since, because lazy historians and journalists let them.

In America, the 'penicillin myth' is actually much truer.

Pfizer is correctly credited with betting its all on biological penicillin while everyone else focussed on synthetic penicillin.

It won : producing 80% of all the penicillin that landed on D-Day.

Merck, the lead firm on synthetic penicillin, is widely derided for betting all on repeated failed attempts to make synthetic penicillin and in so missing the boat entirely on biological penicillin.

Columbia University - via its professor Martin Henry Dawson - could have claimed some of the life-saving glory of biological penicillin, but chose to focus on killing and death instead : prouder by far of its role in the Manhattan Project's fire bombing of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it ignored its role in the other Manhattan project .

The myth of wartime penicillin has been told many times but the real story - far more dramatic than the one hither to told to date - has never emerged......

No comments:

Post a Comment