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Now hardly a week passes without some mention of interferon in the press. Last week the Boston Globe reported that M.I.T. researchers had developed a new mass-production technique that could reduce the cost of a dose of interferon to one-twentieth of its present cost. Earlier this month G.D. Searle & Co. announced plans to build a $12 million IF plant at its research facilities in Britain. Abbott Laboratories, Warner-Lambert, Merck & Co., and a number of other companies are also gearing up for interferon production. When Biogen S.A., a Swiss firm specializing in the new recombinant DNA (gene splicing) techniques, announced in January that it had induced bacteria to produce a facsimile of human interferon, the stock of Schering-Plough, a part owner of Biogen, rose almost eight points, to 37?. Says one prominent cancer researcher: "The drug companies know that there is a gold mine in interferon. They are scrambling like mad to produce it."
A gold mine, indeed. Most of the available IF is now obtained from the Finnish Red Cross and the Central Public Health Laboratory in Helsinki, which extract it from white blood cells separated from donated blood. The output in 1979 was minuscule, 400 mg (.014 oz.) gleaned from 45,000 liters (90,000 pints) of blood. The effort is so painstaking that, according to estimates by scientists at the California Institute of Technology, a pound of pure interferon would cost between $10 billion and $20 billion. That price will certainly decline as large companies enter the field with more efficient production techniques. As one Wall Street analyst predicts, "The market for the stuff is probably big enough for everyone to get a share. If interferon is used, it appears that it will be used in enormous quantities, so the companies that learn how to produce it and sell it the cheapest will reap enormous benefits from their research investment."
The substance that has caused all this excitement was discovered in 1957 by Virologists Alick Isaacs and Jean Lindenmann. Isaacs, who died of a nonmalignant brain tumor at age 45 in 1967, was investigating influenza viruses at London's National Institute for Medical Research. There he met Lindenmann, who had arrived from Switzerland in July 1956. Lindenmann, now head of experimental microbiology at the University of Zurich, stayed in London only a year. But it was time well spent. Over a cup of tea that August, the two scientists discovered a mutual fascination with a biological phenomenon known as viral interference. It was so called because doctors had observed that a victim of one kind of virus-caused illness practically never came down with another viral disease at the same time; the presence of one kind of virus seemed to inhibit infection by any other.