Monday, August 06, 2007

Foot and Mouth

aw morrow
Historic landmark article by Mad Dog Senior.

This is a strange tale of the influences of nature and nurture on a career. It's a bit longer than my usual offering but bear with me.

When I was a lad I tried very hard to suppress any interest in biology. I didn’t study it in secondary school pretending it was too “girly” and immersed myself in physics and chemistry instead. My interest lay in aeronautical engineering and as a teenager I did indeed show some talent in this area. To this day I’m immensely proud of the plaque in my study that proclaims I was Woking & District Model Aero Club Junior Champion, 1965. I really thought I was destined for a career in this field and who knows, I may have been the best airframe designer that Boeing or Airbus never had. But somewhere along the way things changed. The reason for my denial of interest in matters biological was that my Father was a professional microbiologist. My earliest recollections were of stories he would relate of plagues and pestes and vaccines. Thus I picked up some very advanced knowledge of these topics by osmosis. Yet like most adolescents, I didn’t value these facts and denied any interest in this area simply because it was “what Dad did” and I didn’t want to seem terminally unimaginative and follow the same path.

Well somewhere along the way things changed. I became quite obsessively interested in biology while attending Guildford Tech and later went off to university where I decided to study microbiology –for reasons I can’t really explain the aeronautical stuff had become too abstract and mathematical and fell by the wayside. Subsequently (and rather to my surprise) I found that a PhD followed in which I immersed myself in immunology. One thing led to another in my postdoctoral career and I came to grips with various nasty pathogens as well as many facets of the immune system and it was quite a logical step for me to study vaccines. One particular aspect of this field is the use of adjuvants: substances that stimulate the immune system to make bigger and better responses. And as you may have guessed I ended up working on adjuvants for a one and a half decades and published quite a lot on the topic.

Fast forward to 1997. The London medical school at which I was then employed had finally got “The Internet” (several years after everyone else in the academic sphere had access to the virtual world –but that’s another story). Even in those pre-Google days I was marveling at the power of search engines. PubMed, the oracle of the medical publishing fraternity was a notable fascination. After I’d done the obligatory ego-surfing looking up my own name I cast around for other key words to search. So I plugged in my Father’s name and initials. At this stage I should point out that by this time Dear Dad was long departed. Sadly he passed away just as I was finishing my PhD two decades earlier thus depriving me of the possibility of having professional level conversations with him as a scientific equal. I had a vague idea of his work in a government animal health lab but I didn’t know what he actually did, thus looking up his publications on Medline would be very enlightening. We’ll I didn’t realise how enlightening this would be. As his publications popped onto the screen I almost fell off my chair. A paper from 1969 (see above) indicated that not only had I followed him into biology, microbiology, vaccines and adjuvants but he was using a class of the latter compounds (saponins) that I had made the focus of my own research. At the time of this occurrence I was of the view that the use of saponins as adjuvants was an invention of the 1980s* and I had never heard Dad speak of such things. In sum, believe this is a wonderfully example the power of genetic predisposition or aptitude and environmental conditioning working syngerstically to chart one’s career pathway through life, despite strong adolescent protestations.

Oh and the bigger picture of this story? Well the combined use of two different classes of adjuvant, namely alum and saponin, was a very advanced concept in 1969, even though Dad and Dr Hyslop didn’t know all the effects it would have on the immune system. However this alum-saponin mix is still the formulation used in some of the presently available Foot & Mouth Disease vaccines. So with the current outbreak in the UK, let’s not have the ridiculous governmental dithering we witnessed in 2001 and get going with “firebreak vaccination” and control this damn disease as soon as possible…!!

*As I later discovered there's nothing new under the sun: the use of saponins as vaccine adjuvants was first described in the 1920s.

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