Magazine article UNESCO Courier

'Science with a Conscience.' (Interview with Colombian Physicist and Biochemist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo)

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

'Science with a Conscience.' (Interview with Colombian Physicist and Biochemist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo)

Article excerpt

In 1986 Colombian physician and biochemist Manuel Patarroyo made a synthetic vaccine, SPf66, which has since shown considerable efficacy in the struggle against malaria, one of the world's most widespread diseases. In this interview with Flor Romero he looks back to the day when he vowed to follow in the footsteps of Louis Pasteur.

* How did you first become interested in science?

Manuel Patarroyo: I think my scientific curiosity was whetted for the first time when I was five years old, on the day when my aunt Alicia turned up in Ataco, the village where I was born, with two little dog-shaped magnets. It was then that I heard the word magnetism for the first time. I insisted on being told what it meant. Ever since then I have always needed to understand. Whenever I went fishing and came back with a catch, it wasn't to cook the fish but to open them up and see what was inside.

When I was eight years old, I read a biography of Louis Pasteur in a book my father gave me. From that day on, Pasteur became my hero, my model. I decided that I too would make vaccines to serve humanity. I have devoted my life to fulfilling this childhood dream.

I don't know how much credence should be given to what the ancient Greeks called fatum, the destiny that shapes a person's life and leaves little room for freedom. But the fact is that even as a child I already knew what I wanted to do. I have never been tempted to leave my chosen path.

* But how did you manage to develop a chemical vaccine against malaria in a country without a scientific tradition and without the necessary infrastructure for such an important discovery?

M.P.: The story of this vaccine, SPf66 (Synthetic Plasmodium falciparum, 66th tested formula) began in 1978 after we had mastered the methodology developed by Bruce Merrifield, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1984. The first step in our research was to isolate Plasmodium falciparum, the deadly parasite that causes malaria, from cultures of infected blood. Then we had to isolate the proteins of which it is composed. After vaccinating Amazonian monkeys with these molecules, we exposed them to the parasite. We succeeded in defining four molecules that were immunologically useful. We established their molecular structure and then synthesized them and endeavoured to find the combination that protected the infected monkeys. The 66th combination was the successful one. This was how SPf66, the first entirely synthetic antiparasite vaccine, was discovered in January 1986.

And yet I would be incapable of explaining in detail why the product works. No one knows parasites' pathogenic mechanisms.

* Was this why the scientific community reacted oddly to your discovery?

M.P.: We were blamed for having discovered this vaccine empirically, in a situation involving multiple combinations of falciparum molecules.

We first of all tried the vaccine in the owl monkey, Aotus trivirgatus, which is one of the few animal hosts of the human malaria parasite and is plentiful in Colombian Amazonia. The results, published in the scientific journal Nature, met with considerable scepticism from the scientific community, and so did the first human trials in 1987.

I understand this scepticism, not only because of the synthetic nature of the vaccine but also because my country has no scientific tradition. But no one can deny that in Colombia we have discovered a vaccine which is revolutionary on two counts - as the first antiparasite vaccine and as the first totally synthetic vaccine. And while for the moment it is only partially effective, SPf66 can prevent around a million deaths each year.

* Can a higher standard of protection be achieved?

M.P.: Since 1986, we and other research teams have discovered other molecules on the surface of the parasite. In order to maximize the vaccine's efficacy, we have tried to find out more about these parts of the parasite which enable it to adhere to the cells and invade them. …

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