The Big IF in Cancer

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But why? Isaacs and Lindenmann had the answer by early the next year, a remarkably quick solution to a major scientific puzzle. In a series of experiments, they took pieces of the thin membranes that line the inside of chicken eggshells, grew them in a nutrient solution, and exposed them to influenza viruses. When they added other viruses to the culture, they found that the cells resisted further infection. True to form, the first set of viruses seemed to be thwarting the attack of the second. The researchers next removed all traces of viruses and chicken cells, leaving only the culture brew. They added this solution to a batch of healthy cells and "challenged" them with a new virus. The cells remained uninfected. It was apparent that the initial virus infection had stimulated the cells to produce something that interfered with further viral assaults; this substance remained behind in the solution when the original cells and viruses were removed.

Lindenmann decided to call the mysterious stuff interferon, a hybrid of "interference" and the suffix "on," which was in vogue among biologists, who were using such names as cistron, recon and muton to describe new genetic concepts. The initial discovery was made in November and duly recorded in Isaacs' lab notebook under the entry: "In search of an interferon." Lindenmann took it all in stride. Said he: "I thought it quite natural that when you did research you discovered things."

But the implications were staggering. Here at last, it seemed, was an agent that would mow down a broad spectrum of viruses, just as penicillin does with bacteria. Most laymen remained unaware of the discovery, but one notable exception was Dan Barry, artist of the Flash Gordon comic strip. That became evident when the first clinical use of interferon took place not in a hospital but in a 1960 Flash Gordon adventure. In that episode, spacemen infected with an extraterrestrial virus aboard a rocket ship far from home are pulled back from death's door by last-minute injections of interferon.

But many scientists had their doubts, one of them disdainfully calling the finding "misinterpreton." Recalls Microbiologist Samuel Baron, who worked with Isaacs in 1960: "It was too good to believe. Other inhibitors of viruses had been debunked, so they thought interferon was another false claim." Baron, from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, had his own doubts when he arrived in England to join Isaacs: "I remember saying to the technician, 'Let's see how this thing works.' It was so impressive that at the end of a week I was fully convinced of its potential. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work."

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