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After a year of difficulties, Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, the controversial Colombian immunologist and malaria researcher, has at last found a new home with the opening last week (7 May) of a brand new research institute, the Institute of Immunology of Colombia.

It has not been an easy 12 months. Last year, the Colombian government delayed the annual grant that it had been providing towards the costs of his research, and a local bank seized his equipment in a dispute with the institute’s previous landlords, forcing his research team to relocate in temporary premises.

But with an opening ceremony at which the president of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana, was the guest of honour — and which was attended by two former presidents, Julio Cesar Turbay and Belisario Betancur, as well as an array of bankers, diplomats, and other leading members of Colombian society — Patarroyo is hoping that the problems can be put behind him, and that he can once again concentrate on his goal of producing an effective malaria vaccine.

Patarroyo has long been seen as something of a maverick in the malaria research field. In the 1980s, he achieved world-wide fame when he announced that, working in his laboratory in Bogotá, he had succeeded in producing the world’s first effective vaccine against malaria, a goal that had eluded many leading research teams in the developed world.

In a gesture of generosity, he agreed in 1995 to donate the patent on the vaccine patent to the World Health Organisation. In subsequent trials by other researchers, however, the vaccine failed to live up to its earlier promise, and this version of the vaccine has since been abandoned.

Undeterred, Patarroyo is currently working on what he describes as a ‘second generation’ malaria vaccine, and remains optimistic that he can overcome the problems encountered first time around.

Since the late 1980s, Patarroyo’s institute has received direct funding from the public purse through an allocation to “projects for investment on health research”. No destination for these funds was specified in the budget, and money has always been assigned to his institute.

The funding has been relatively generous. While the Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology (Colciencias) provided biomedical researchers with US$3.52 million between 1991 and 1996, Patarroyo received US$4 million in two years alone, 1995 - 1996.

Last year, however, the Constitutional Court decided that such money should be spent on in “emergency projects”, and government officials said that this was intended to cover research into topics such as social violence, currently the leading cause of death in the country. As a result, the research into malaria conducted by the Institute of Immunology did not fall into this category.

At the same time, financial problems at the San Juan de Dios Hospital Foundation, in which the Institute of Immunology had been located since 1985, had pushed the foundation into bankruptcy.

This created additional problems for Patarroyo, as legally, the buildings and their contents — including research equipment — belonged to the foundation, and as one of the creditors the Banco Ganadero, a bank that had been recently bought by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) of Spain, seized his research equipment.

Patarroyo and his researchers, 165 at that time, had to leave the buildings, taking with them their 48,000 serum samples. “That was my research for nearly 30 years, and it consists of more than 27,000 molecules we have synthesised”, he says; “I wouldn’t have left them there for anything”.

Colombia’s National Institute of Health in Bogotá agreed to find room for 80 freezers and other equipment, and provided space for his researchers to work until he found new premises. “It was a really hard time”, he says. “It’s difficult to imagine how it feels to lose in a few months everything you have done in a lifetime”

By November 2001, Patarroyo had created the legal foundations of a new institute, negotiated with the Banco Ganadero, and talked to anyone prepared to listen in the government, the parliament and the media, in order to get what he considered his money, as well as a place to install his laboratory.

Prompted by statement that he had made during a radio interview, two individuals launched what is known as an “acción popular” against the government — a move that requires a response within two weeks — for holding back support for Patarroyo’s research, and indeed for not doing more to support science in Colombia.

Meanwhile, Patarroyo had travelled to Spain to discuss an offer to move his research teams there. He says that those who invited him to do this included the principal of the Universidad Pública de Navarra, the president of Navarra, and the mayoress of Pamplona.

The Spanish officials offered to let him set up his institute, to hire 60 of his researchers, and to give the institute US$3 million yearly for five years towards its research and administrative costs. Patarroyo announced that he was leaving Colombia, emphasising that it was a personal decision. “Colombia has not fired me, the world science community hasn’t finished with me, the guerrilla does not have to do anything with my decision,” he said at the time.

A week later, Sara Ordoñez, at that time minister of health, resigned from her post. Various factors appear to have been involved. But some claim that one was her reluctance to grant funds to Patarroyo without going through the standard peer review channels, and her insistence that his research project was not a priority of the type identified by the constitutional court.

Following her departure, the government provided Patarroyo with a further US$3.6 million. This allowed him to move with his researchers — now reduced to 115, as 50 had quit after their salaries had stopped being paid — and the freezers to the building of the ageing Institute of Nuclear Affairs. And the BBVA decided to donate the equipment, worth an estimated US$1.5 million, to the new institute.

With the opening of the new institute, Patarroyo now has a new, permanent home for his research, But his difficulties are not over. Workers at the former San Juan de Dios Hospital, who are holding a protest at not being paid for nearly three years, are currently preventing the equipment being taken out of the building in a bid to persuade the government to pay them.

Through all the difficulties of the past 12 months, and the inevitable impact this has had on his research, Patarroyo and his colleagues have continued to publish articles in the scientific press, During 2001, 17 papers appeared in journals such as Vaccine, Journal of Hepatology, Bioquimica et Biophysica Acta, Angewandte, and the American Association of Immunologists.

Patarroyo remains optimistic that this research will prove successful. “We are going to find a logical and rationale way to develop vaccines”, he says. At the opening of his institute, he announced that it was currently working on a second generation of the malaria vaccine, and that it aimed to develop a revolutionary method to administer vaccines in only one dose without needing to keep the vaccine in a cold place.