Colombia puts its scientific credibility on the line
The Colombian immunologist Manuel Patarroyo is celebrating the opening of a new institute and continues to promise to produce an effective malaria vaccine. More than one man's scientific reputation is at stake.
If charm and charisma were sufficient to ensure scientific success, Colombian immunologist Manual Elkin Patarroyo would have won his much-coveted Nobel prize many years ago. It is less than a decade since his dreams of producing the world's first effective malaria vaccine effectively crumbled into dust in the face of disappointing clinical trials. But a year after his whole research project seemed on the verge of collapse with the withdrawal of government funding and the confiscation of his research equipment in bankruptcy dispute in which he was not directly involved, Patarroyo has come bouncing back.
Last week saw the opening in Bogotá of a brand new institute, the Institute of Immunology of Colombia (see Malaria researcher comes in from the cold). It was an event at which the current president of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana, praised the researcher as a national hero, and expressed pride at the support that his government provided him and the new institute. For a country torn apart by violence, the event must have provided a welcome distraction; in addition, many, both within and outside Colombia, see Patarroyo's return to favour as valuable recognition that top-level scientific research can be achieved in the country.
Scientific reputations, however, rest on more than enthusiasm and dedication — two of the qualities that no-one has ever accused Patarroyo of lacking. What the scientific world is waiting to see is whether Patarroyo's promise of a second generation malaria vaccine is able to overcome the hurdles at which the first one failed. And by attaching itself to his reputation in the public eye, the Colombian government is making itself hostage to fortune — not least because his financial support has not come through the usual scientific channels (including conventional peer review), but, uniquely, out of direct government funding.
In striving to convince the scientific world of the value of his new vaccine, Patarroyo faces an uphill task. His brilliance as a synthetic chemist and immunologist — talents that revealed themselves at an early age during his studies first in Bogotá and subsequently at Yale and Rockefeller universities in the United States — is widely respected. It was these skills that lay behind the first potential vaccine, based on synthesised peptides and published with much fanfare in Nature in 1987.
There has been more disagreement over Patarroyo's skills as an epidemiologist and clinical researcher. Although he claimed a success rate of 30 to 60 per cent with the initial vaccine, known as SPf66 — and pointed out that even such relatively low figures offered hope of reducing the three million who die from the disease in the developing world every year — other researchers failed to achieve the same success rate. And the final nail in the coffin came in 1995 with the results of independent trials in Gambia and Thailand. These found that the vaccine offered no protection at all when compared to a placebo, killing any hope it would become the World Health Organisation's standard form of protection against the disease.
Patarroyo did not take kindly to his vaccine's failure to win the recognition that he had sought. He frequently blamed this on the reluctance of scientists in developed nations to accept that a researcher from a developing country such as Colombia could succeed where they had failed.
It is difficult not to sympathise with Patarroyo's frustration. Clearly convinced by the apparent success of his vaccine not only in initial trials with monkeys, but also on Colombian volunteers, that he was on to a successful vaccine, the outcome of the Gambian and Thai studies was a bitter blow. The fact that this failure seemed to fuel the doubts of those who had long challenged his optimistic assessment of the vaccine's prospects will only have increased the bitterness.
One should not underestimate the cultural impact in Colombia of Patarroyo's fame, whatever doubts there may be about the claims on which it is based. It is with pride that he points to opinion polls showing that a high proportion of young Colombians want to become scientists, a reflection of the fact that his popularity rivals that of his friend, the author Gabriel García Márquez. And the fierce loyalty of his staff, many of whom continued to work for no pay last year when his government funding temporarily ran out, reflects not only a personal commitment to the man, but also a broader commitment of the promise of basic biomedical research.
Having said that, however, Patarroyo is running a high-risk strategy by making promises to find "a logical and rational way to develop vaccines". Some of the critics of his previous vaccine work strongly wanted him to succeed, and were as disappointed as he was at the outcome of the Gambian and Thai trials. Accusing such critics of intellectual arrogance, indeed claiming that the research failed to win acceptance because of his own developing country origins, has done little to serve his cause.
For the time being, Patarroyo and his colleagues must be given the benefit of the doubt. A 'second generation' synthetic peptide vaccine against malaria may eventually work, and Patarroyo's research may still point the way to it. But this does not mean that the rules of good science can be ignored or replaced by wishful thinking. To believe in such would not only be the ultimate in self-deception; it would also be a disservice to all those in Colombian society who have put their faith in science as a path to a better future.
© SciDev.Net 2002