13 September 2007

Atom bomb, sneezing ferrets and the interferon hype

It's been 50 years since Jean Lindenmann and Alick Isaacs published their papers on the discovery of interferon, an anti-viral protein manufactured by virus-infected cells. Their research was done at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in London. In today's Nature, there is a 1-page interview with the Swiss scientist Lindenmann, now 83.

Some highlights:

I started out studying physics at the University of Zurich, but 18 months into my course the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This so disenchanted me that I switched to medicine.

A petition was circulated
[at NIMR] to protest the British invasion of Egypt that had nationalized the Suez Canal. But I felt that I shouldn’t sign it because Switzerland was a neutral country.

The fever that the [ferrets infected with influenza] developed could be passed on to other ferrets. In the course of such a passage, a ferret sneezed into the face of [Wilson] Smith, who fell ill with influenza.

Interferon was hyped shamelessly at some phases of scientific research. Of course it never became a miracle cure for cancer and viral infections. Scientists were not innocent in this hyping — it was a way of getting research money.

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