Superbug Summer Books: Experiment Eleven

In the history of antibiotics, the creation myth is the discovery of penicillin. In 1928, Alexander Fleming leaves a window open in his laboratory, a breeze blows across his culture plates, and when he returns to retrieve the plates for cleaning, he discovers that tiny specks of mold that have landed on the plates have killed the staph he had been culturing. The mold is Penicillium, and the compound it produces, once refined and reproduced in a laboratory, launches what we think of as the antibiotic era, and changes medicine forever.

But while penicillin jumpstarts antibiotic production, it is another antibiotic — streptomycin — which arguably creates the pharmaceutical industry, by being the first antibiotic to be patented. (The original penicillin never was, due to complications of timing, and also to its developers’ conviction that it belonged to the world.)

The story of the discovery of streptomycin is much less well-known than that of penicillin. But it ought to be much better-known — because as longtime journalist Peter Pringle recounts in a new book, “Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug” (Walker), it contains so much that is so relevant today, not just to the process of drug discovery, but to the conduct of research. If you care about fairness or justice, Pringle’s account of how graduate student Albert Schatz, the actual identifier of the drug, was deprived of recognition — and a fortune in royalties — will enrage you. If you are a junior scientist, I suspect it will give you nightmares.

For the latest installment of Superbug Summer Books, I talked to Pringle by phone and edited and condensed our chat.

Wired: I’m curious; looking at your career and your many other books — which are largely about politics and war and corruption — why you chose to tell this story? Which, I hasten to add, is well worth telling; I had no idea the history of streptomycin was so narratively rich, or so — well, outrageous.

Peter Pringle: What I try to do, going back to when I was an investigative reporter on Harold Evans’ Sunday Times Insight Team in the ’70s, is — paraphrasing Margaret Mead, I think — to add to the sum of accurate information in the world. We went after things that nobody knew about, like the ravages of colonialism in Africa, the preparation of weapons of mass destruction, the impact of Agent Orange and DDT. But the guiding motivation then, and it remains for me today, was really the search for truth, for fairness and honesty.

A while ago, a friend who had helped me on my book Food Inc., who is the dean of Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, asked me what I was going to do next. I said, “I really don’t know,” and he said, “Well, you should just come look at this archive in the basement of the university. Because there’s a terrific story about this controversy and it has never really been resolved.” It turned out to be this great tale of ego, greed and neglect. It was a great treasure hunt.

Wired: The story you tell — of how Selman Waksman deliberately deprived his student Albert Schatz of credit for the discovery of streptomycin, deluding him as to the drug’s success and excluding him from the Nobel Prize citation with the backing of the scientific establishment — is just jaw-dropping. But what’s so striking about it, to me, is how relevant that story is to concerns about scientific misconduct today.

Pringle: Peter Lawrence, who is a biologist at Cambridge, has a wonderful image of these students being misused by their principal investigators. He describes them as boosters on space rockets: They accelerate their supervisors into a higher career orbit, and they fall to the ground like burnt-out shells. This happens all the time, and most of the time you don’t hear about it. Mind you, those were slightly different days, and Waksman was of the then-deeply entrenched European tradition, that the head of the department is everything and the students are nothing. But it’s very clear he wanted Schatz out of the way, wanted him basically to disappear.

Waksman was watching the end of his career. He had several prizes, but he didn’t have the big one. He was determined to go get it and he did. He could have done so much for Schatz — could have gotten him, for instance, a research grant, or told Merck to give him some money because Schatz hadn’t done very well — but he didn’t do that because he didn’t want to detract from this trail of mystery he had laid, that was simply made up, to his own advantage.

Wired: If I understand this correctly, it wasn’t only Schatz whom Waksman misled. In the process, he enabled the pharmaceutical patent structure that the industry is built on today.

credit: Susan Meiselas

Pringle: There was no provision for patenting life forms. Waksman had to state these compounds were not produced naturally in the soil; that they could only be produced if you isolated this microbe, stuck it on a petri dish, fed it the right stuff, which you would not find in the soil — and then it would produce streptomycin. And, Waksman said, that is the same for all antibiotics. Well, it was wartime and they needed this thing, and Merck needed to move forward against other companies, and George Merck was head of the secret committee on biological and chemical weapons and ruled that it was imperative this not to be held back at any point in the production line. So the patent examiner said OK, you’re the authority, go ahead. Which gave Merck and any other pharmaceutical company that could get in on the act, and there were many of them, a opportunity to take any microbe out of the soil, extract an antibiotic from it, and patent it and make money out of it. Don’t forget, at this point the pharmaceutical industry has not much more than aspirin in its cupboards, a few things which were not cures, but only palliatives. Here was a cure  for tuberculosis, the world’s most destructive infectious disease. It may be slightly exaggerated to say this launched Big Pharma, but it shaped the way that Big Pharma became big.

Wired: In your account, Rutgers University, which not only abetted Waksman’s disappearing of Schatz but perpetrated some untruths of its own, eventually made good: It recognized Schatz’s contribution and gave him its highest university award. But the Nobel Prize in Medicine, which named only Waksman, has never been changed or footnoted to add Schatz’s name. You feel there’s an ongoing lesson in this?

Pringle: In my view, the possibility of the Nobel Prize is what drove Waksman to do what he did. So should we be concerned  about the draw of the Nobel? I think we should. The Nobel is the ultimate accolade in science and, in the popular mind, it separates the receivers of the award from all others. It acts so powerfully to define what we value in science.

Alfred Nobel’s will was written before 1900, and science was very different in those days. People could discover things on their own. Now it’s much more complicated, there are many more people involved, and yet the award is still limited to a maximum of three people. It’s a serious difficulty for the Nobel committee, particularly in something like biology where the science is all over the place in different laboratories. If you look at the Schatz case in particular, you’ll see that they only looked at the scientific papers — they didn’t consider any of the lab material, let alone Schatz’s legal case — and they separated out the professor. They called Schatz a “medarbetare,” an assistant of inferior rank. That distinction still exists. The question for me is how much longer do we keep on awarding these prizes that mean so much in the scientific community, without looking into the mechanism of how they’re awarded? The rules for the selection of prize recipients continue to allow mis-allocation of credit.

This is part of an intermittent series I’m running this summer about books I like and think you should take a look at. Some of the books are directly related to this blog’s core topics; others I just think are cool. You can find my picks at #SBSBooks on Twitter.



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