Scientists with Vision: Dr. Manuel Elkin Patarroyo
Education: National University of Colombia medical faculty; post-graduate study at Yale, U.S.A.; PhD at Rockefeller University, U.S.A.
Occupation: Professor of the National University of Colombia. Founder and Director of the Colombian Institute of Immunology.
Awards: The Alejandro Angel Escobar National Award for Science (1979, 1981, 1984 and 1986); 1990 Academy of Sciences of the Third World (Venezuela); 1994 Doctor of the Year (France); 1995 WHO Leon Bernard Prize, 2002 Health Personality of the Year (Spain).
This is the second in WIPO Magazine’s series of interviews with distinguished scientists and researchers, each of whom embodies the qualities of creativity and innovation which the intellectual property system is designed to stimulate.
Pathologist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo is Colombia’s best known and most colorful scientist. Passionately committed to science in the service of humanity, he has dedicated his life’s work to the search for vaccines against the “orphan diseases” which claim the lives of millions in developing countries each year. Dr. Patarroyo broke new ground with his first, partially effective, chemical malaria vaccine in 1986, for which he subsequently donated the patent to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Since then he has pursued his goal of producing a 100 percent effective malaria vaccine.
Dr. Patarroyo, can you tell us how you came to devote yourself to medical research?
My vocation came from the dreams which my parents nurtured in me from childhood. They considered that the best thing a person could do was to make himself useful to others; and that the most fascinating thing in life was knowledge. If you put those two things together, essentially you have a scientist working for the well-being of humanity. They gave me comics and children’s books to read, including books about Louis Pasteur. I was fascinated by this man who dedicated his whole life to preventing diseases. Pasteur became my idol – and he still is my idol.
What made you choose to focus on vaccines for “orphan” diseases?
When I studied in New York at the Rockefeller University, I observed an enormous imbalance from the point of view of scientific research. It is legitimate for developed countries to work on the main pathology or health problems which affect their own populations. But the diseases in developing countries had been neglected. Coming myself from a developing country, I decided to dedicate myself to developing vaccines primarily for those problems which basically afflict the peoples of developing countries, such as malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis, leishmaniasis, cervical cancer, which is an enormous problem, and many other infectious diseases.
What has given you the greatest satisfaction in your research?
I must give enormous thanks first of all to my country, which has supported me unconditionally, and to my colleagues who have such a conviction in what we are collectively doing. Thanks to this, there have been many results that have given me great satisfaction. For example, having found that vaccines can be produced chemically, which was my dream since I was a child. Finding that this is feasible is tremendously satisfying, as it means that any infectious disease can be attacked through chemistry.
What might you do differently if you could start your career again?
If I had to start my life again, I would even make the same mistakes. The truth is that I have learned more from my mistakes, and most of all from the criticisms which have been made of us, either rightly or wrongly. I have learned much more than from my own training. If a concept developed previously by others or by us proves wrong, we resolve it quickly, take a step back and pick up the correct route.
What are the greatest challenges you face as director of a research center in a developing country?
There are 517 infectious diseases from which a human being can suffer, for which we have only 12 vaccines. It is a problem of universal dimension. It is my obsession and my passion. But people always talk about problems, and we should not forget the benefits, for example, the advantages which make it possible to set up an institute of this kind in Colombia.
The greatest challenge now is our search for a logical and “mathematical” method for developing any vaccine. To this end, the Institute has been set up to include not only chemists, but also physicists and mathematicians. Based on the knowledge we have from – let us call it – a physical way of analyzing molecules, we can attempt to deduce the mathematical way of developing these vaccines. It is a search for a universal formula, which would save so much time in research, so much money, so many lives.
You have had to deal with some major financial setbacks. What motivated your team to follow you through the difficult times?
As a result of the debts accumulated by the Immunology Institute and the hospital, absolutely everything was lost: our headquarters, laboratories, equipment, budget. Saddest of all, we lost a large number of people who, in the face of the economic difficulties, had to emigrate to the United States or to other developed countries, where they are now carrying out fantastic research work.
But there is complete conviction among the whole team that we should move ahead. We are all convinced that finally we are on the right track. So people see the development of the ideas, and can see the other problems which we encounter as incidental, i.e. as the natural drawbacks of being in a situation where we have a great number of advantages but also disadvantages.
What messages might you offer to policymakers based on your experience of research in the developed and developing world?
Talent is without doubt equally distributed in all parts of the world. The difference lies in the possibilities which such talented people have. I endeavor to convince governments and institutions of the importance of creating centers in situ, in each country, in order to increase the possibilities for talented people to develop their potential, and to produce solutions in those places where problems are endemic.
Governments in many developing countries have little awareness of science. They have not integrated science into their discourse and daily tasks. But this is not only a matter of government policies. Our own mothers can stimulate and plant in their children the desire to be scientists. This is where everything begins. Science must be given social importance. And there must be a kind of pressure. Nowadays in Colombia 0.2 percent is invested in science and technology; and in the United States of America 2.5 percent. This gives rise to an enormous difference.
And finally, Dr. Patarroyo, what would you say to young people considering a career in science?
One of the fundamental elements of my daily activity is to visit schools and to receive children at the Institute in order to speak to them about science. I tell them to dream. Dream, and strive every day for your dreams, and if together you work for the well-being of others, everyone will help you to achieve your goal, because they too will achieve what they want.
Source: World Health Organisation/Roll Back Malaria.