Sunday, April 17, 2016

Henry Dawson, Scientific 'Persister'

First, let me explain my little in-house joke.

You see, "persister" bacteria were first discovered by Gladys Hobby and others, while working as part of Henry Dawson's wartime "impure penicillin" team.

And so perhaps discovered by Dr Dawson as well. Though his name wasn't on the original paper, as he was away receiving major medical treatment when it was first publicly presented.

The concept of "persisters" is fairly well known in Science - but only among microbes, not among scientists themselves.

In early 1942, Dr Hobby had discovered than no matter how much penicillin was poured onto bacteria ordinarily very vulnerable to it and for no matter how long - a tiny percentage always seemed to survive and re-emerge later once treatment was ended.

It was a valuable - and totally new - explanation as to why some germs could resist attacks not just from penicillin and other drugs but also from the body itself and so go on to create chronic or reoccurring infections.

In the Dawson team's mind, one such important chronic illness was the SBE disease they were trying so hard to cure with their home-brewed penicillin.

Sub-acute bacterial endocarditis, as its name suggests, is a long term low grade infection of the heart valves that always ended in the premature death of the patient.

SBE was the key reason why the various diseases associated with Rheumatic Fever made it so much dreaded before 1960 as the leading killer of school age children.

In the case of SBE, the persisters survived on the valves of the heart in biofilms then called vegetations.

Persister-survivors (they are found all through the Kingdom of Life - including we humans) are a big part of the reason so many diseases soon resist the antibiotic that was discovered to cure them completely only a few years earlier.

They don't get the attention they deserve because scientific journalists are currently fixated on HGT, the horizontal spreading of genes (including those of antibiotic resistance to antibiotics) rapidly all through the microbe world.

HGT is done by microbes - and only by microbes - though much of their work with it is claimed as being done/invented/discovered by us humans.

From bacterial PCR to bacterial CRISPR, (superstars on Wall Street and with government funding agencies) we act as if we invented this stuff - we did not - it all came about due to Dawson's persistent and lonely promoting of bacteria's use of HGT as something very very very important, from 1928 onwards.

Yes, HGT was not discovered by Dawson but rather by the very-reluctant-to-publish and doubting Fred Griffiths.

But it was only made widely known to the scientific world through the dogged persistence of 'persister' Dawson, against a strong headwind of elite scientist resistance, resistance that is by no means dead today.

I have discovered that his campaign of new articles and talking it up alone kept the concept of HGT alive, at least between mid 1928 to at least late 1943 (he died soon after), when very very few were interested and none of them ever produced more than one article on it.

Now Dawson is considered to have discovered a few important biological events - in particular Quorum Sensing : the chemical and electric communication between large populations of bacteria - even between widely different species.

But in general, Dawson didn't discover things --- rather he persistently connected together a lot of microbial events that were not connected by their discoverers and not treated as at all important in themselves by all others.

The pioneering and persistent Dawson was in very early - and stayed in - on now-important matters like HGT, Quorum Sensing, Molecular Mimicry, L-Form Bacteria, Biofilms and Persisters.

(In Dawson talk, he worked on the R,S,M,L,V and P forms of oral commensal Strep ---- in a very narrow farrow, he plowed very deep indeed.)

(For example : not just in curing the incurable and always fatal SBE, but also being the first in history to inject penicillin into the bloodstream of a human patient, thus birthing our Age of Antibiotics.)

All these various biological activities are just some of the ways that Life's smallest and weakest beings have - nevertheless - survived for four billion years against all that has been thrown at them.

They all form part of what is now called Microbial Intelligence.

Again, Dawson didn't discover penicillin - that was the work of another reluctant Briton , Alexander Fleming.

All Dawson did was to quickly put it to work saving lives right away, unlike Fleming, and in publishing all his results early and widely.

Even (or even particularly) his failures.

We honor - way way too much - the first person to get a discovery into print because confirming that publication date is easy (and lazy) scientific journalism.

Even when ,like Griffiths, the discovery was only published because a friend threatened to do so himself. if Griffiths did not.

Griffiths did nothing more with HGT.

We totally fail to do the hard work needed to properly honour those who labour hard to make something useful out of scientific discoveries that are so new and unexpected that almost no one - including their discoverer - realizes they are epoch-launching.

The Nobel Prize for the rushed wartime mass production development of life-saving natural penicillin (at a time when it was really needed )should not of gone to either Fleming or Ernst Chain, though it should have fulsomely praised their efforts.

It should have gone to Howard Florey, as it did, for persistently pushing penicillin against much early scientific and medical indifference.

But also to Dawson, for persistently pushing the ultimately successful natural penicillin route  as all that was needed - now! - to save lives today!

He was the one who got then-tiny Pfizer to make natural penicillin -and notably, they alone made over 80% of WWII's penicillin.

Dawson persisted in this, even while dying of a terrible disease.

Persisted against the now-powerfully-allied Florey and Florey's useless and harmful obsession with first producing commercial synthetic penicillin (something which has never yet happened) even at the cost of failing to mass produce penicillin in time to save a starving stressed out world at war.

Dawson was dogged and dull and while dogged is always welcome in news stories and myths, dull is never popular.

Florey was very colorful, very ambitious, very sharp-edged as well as very persistent - and while he never really achieved much of world importance as a bench scientist and did better work as a scientific administrator, he has made for some great myths.

As in untruths.

The publicly dull-as-dishwater, very understated Dawson (the semi-private Dawson was much more verbally biting) would never had made for good copy, not without a determined effort from an admiring journalist.

In any case, he died early, at war's end, before censorship was lifted enough to make his side of the story better known.

I have made it my job to make his story better known.

I do so because I consider that it was he - via his work on bacterial HGT DNA and fungus-made penicillin antibiotics - who was more responsible than anyone else for making Biology, not Physics or Chemistry, the Queen of All Sciences today....

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