Two Ill-Gotten Nobel Prizes

Javier Sampedro Self Portrait

Javier Sampedro: The First Pharmaceutical Thriller

Two Ill-Gotten Nobel Prizes
El País: Dos Nobel mal dados
By Dr. Javier Sampedro, published March 6, 2012

Although the news hasn’t yet reached the general public, scientists who have examined the subject now have little or no doubt that the Swedish Academy committed grave errors in awarding the Nobel Prizes in Medicine for 1952 and 2011. Almost 60 years separate the two, but both the modus operandi (ignore the discoverer to honor his boss) and the motives of these crimes were the same. Both errors touch on vital questions not only for science but for industry as well. As I’ve said to you, Dr. Watson, always follow the money trail.

The last Nobel for Medicine was given to the French immunologist Jules Hoffmann and two other colleagues for discovering the workings of the innate immune system, the first line of defense against virii, bacteria, fungus, and worms of every kind, that shoots first and asks many less questions than the exquisitively selective adaptive immune system, which is what we typically understand as the immune system.

The Academy credited Hoffmann, the former president of the French Academy of Science, for discovering the system by using the powerful genetics of the fly Drosophila, which permitted him to extrapolate to our species and open an investigation into a radically new kind of antimicrobial agent. Doctor Hoffmann’s New Penicillin would be a good name for a future product.

But that product wouldn’t have come about thanks to Doctor Hoffman’s work.

It would come thanks to a postdoc (postdoctoral fellow) in his Strasbourg laboratory, Bruno Lemaitre, who decided to do the crucial experiments with Drosophilia and who carried them out. Hoffman’s principal contribution to the research was to oppose it. The revelation of these actions, which has a sensible tone and a ton of minute details, came from Lemaitre himself, but Hoffmann has not issued a denial, even though he had a magnificent opportunity to do so. He says that “it wouldn’t be elegant.” Ignoring it doesn’t seem like much of a response, either.

The second story is older, but its resolution is even fresher: research by the British journalist Peter Pringle has revealed that young doctoral student Albert Schatz of Rutgers University discovered streptomycin, the first effective medicine against tuberculosis, in 1943. His thesis advisor, Selman Waksman, reaped the bounty: the Nobel Prize and money from Merck for the rights to the patent. Pringle’s book, Experiment Eleven will be published in English by Walker & Co. May 8.

As I’ve said to you, Dr. Watson, beneath every great man is a squashed scholar.

Javier Sampedro Self Portrait
Javier Sampedro (Madrid, 1960) is a doctor of molecular biology. Until 1993, he dedicated himself professionally to genetic investigation, first in the Severo Ochoa Center for Molecular Biology in Madrid, then in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge. In 1994, he retrained himself as a journalist, and for 15 years he has been the a redactor for El País. He is a good illustrator and a bad jazz guitarist. His motto is: “[Those are my principles, and] if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

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